Three of the most glorious words in the English language for theatre geeks like me happen to be “a new musical.” Yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein are great but it’s always a pleasure to see and hear the work of newer writers that make up the next generation. Arena Stage is giving us that chance right now with the world premiere of Dear Evan Hansen.
The show tackles two heavy subjects. The first being teen suicide which is becoming more and more like an epidemic in this country. The second is acceptance and what lengths people will go to in order to feel good about themselves. Yes, this is a musical that dares to make the audience think. LOVE IT!!
…Pasek and Paul demonstrate again why they are on the fast track to being Broadway’s next big writing team.
Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a socially awkward high school student with no friends. His mother Heidi Hansen (Rachel Bay Jones) is a single mom working long hours in a hospital while going to school to become a paralegal. Because of this, she isn’t around for Evan very much if at all. As part of an exercise from Evan’s therapist, he is given the task of writing a letter to himself, which will bring out what he is feeling inside. Connor Murphy (Mike Faist) is a pot smoking social outcast who has been bullied all through school. When Connor and Evan have an encounter on the first day of school, things get messy. The letter Evan has written mentions Connor’s sister Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) and suggests that Evan might have a crush on her. An altercation occurs shortly after with Connor keeping Evan’s letter.
Three days later, Connor commits suicide, something he had tried to do previously. When the letter is found by Connor’s parents Cynthia and Larry (Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park) things get even messier for Evan. After reading the letter Cynthia thinks that Evan was Connor’s only friend even though they were never seen together. Because she is so distraught over Connor’s death, Evan goes along with her story thinking it will help the family grieve. Zoe is of the opinion that the parents are the reason for her brother’s death and is very vocal about it. To keep Connor’s memory alive Evan, along with another awkward student Alana Beck (Alexis Molnar) start a website called The Connor Project so people can read about Connor and express their own feelings. As you can probably guess, the lie that Evan is living is quickly becoming bigger and bigger so now comes the question. Does Evan actually care about what happened to Connor or is he using the opportunity of his death to accomplish something good? It’s up to you to decide.
While Steven Levenson’s book feels a little schmaltzy at times there isn’t anything that can’t be fixed. The character of the no filter family friend Jared Kleinman (Will Roland) is probably the thing that needs the biggest overhaul. As it is now, it feels like he is there to provide comic relief in the middle of all the gloom and seriousness. My issue is that the character doesn’t feel genuine. This is not to say that Roland isn’t a good actor because he is. I absolutely wanted to slug Jared by the end of this show which means Roland was very convincing. Other than Jared’s help in the writing of the emails that supposedly went back and forth between Connor and Evan, I just don’t know if Jared needs to be.
Where this show excels big time is in the music department with a fantastic score by the Tony Award nominated energizer bunny writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. If you’ve ever seen them in concert you’ll understand why I say that. Their score is full of vibrancy, drive and really helps to elevate the story. A few of the musical highlights include the knockout opening song called “This’ll Be the Year” and the act one closer called “Part of Me.” With these two songs plus the rest of the score, Pasek and Paul demonstrate again why they are on the fast track to being Broadway’s next big writing team.
Helping to make the score take off is the rhythm infused orchestration work of Alex Lacamoire with additional orchestrations provided by Christopher Jahnke. The powerhouse vocal arrangements are by Justin Paul. The show features an eight piece band under the direction of Ben Cohn. The instrumentation of keyboard, violin, viola, cello, bass, two guitars and the drummer doubling on keyboard (that’s a new one) serves the score extremely well and provides a great vibe throughout.
Director Michael Greif has gotten uniformly good performances out of his ensemble of actors. Ben Platt as Evan Hansen does present the classic awkward geek in a way that you can’t help most of the time feeling bad for. It is only when things get crazy that his credibility is in question. Platt’s big song “Words Fail” brings Platt’s character full throttle vocally.
Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s mother Heidi gives us a glimpse into what many single parents have to go through. . She wants to be a good mom to Evan but needs to make ends meet. Do you accept help from others or be proud and do it on your own is the nagging question for Heidi. Jones’s “So Big/So Small is a definite highlight of the evening.
Laura Dreyfuss as the brooding Zoe presents a very strong image of the teenager that is lashing out at society. Before her brother’s death, no one noticed her. Now everyone wants to be her friend. Dreyfuss’s two duets with Platt “If I Could Tell Her” and “Only Us” demonstrate the perfect chemistry she has with her co-star and you totally buy the building relationship between Zoe and Evan.
Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park do well with their stereotypically drawn characters of two parents in denial and Alexis Molnar as the driven Alana Beck turns in an intense performance as she does everything to keep The Connor Project in the public’s awareness.
Mike Faist as the troubled teen Connor puts the show in perspective with a heartbreaking performance. It makes you ask “How do you help people that think so badly of themselves that they end up wanting to end it?” This question is what I feel is a big part of this show.
While this isn’t a dance show, the choreography by Danny Mefford helps rather than hinders. It does what it needs to while never getting in the way of the actual songs.
David Korins’s very effective set of sliding panels project a barrage of Facebook and Kickstarter projections designed by Peter Nigrini.
Dear Evan Hansen is aiming for Broadway and it very well should. With a little work on the book this could be the next big important musical to hit NY after Hamilton which opens in the next few weeks. This is a brand new musical that’s thought provoking and entertaining. Score!!!
Advisory: Adult Themes and content
Running Time: Two Hours and thirty minutes with one intermission
Dear Evan Hansen runs through August 23rd 2015 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater which is located at 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or click here.