“Dear Evan Hansen” arrives on Broadway with “the next big thing” written all over it — and deservedly so.
But first, a disclaimer: I had a problem with the musical during its Off-Broadway run at Second Stage last spring. I felt that, despite the show’s appealing production and winning music, it trivialized mental illness and teen suicide by suggesting that the main character — a boy with severe social impairment — only needed attention, a nice family meal and a girl’s kiss to be instantly cured.
That’s not a spoiler, but it’s still the problem. And I’ve decided to ignore it. The show is superb — original, sensitive, provocative, endearing — about so many other knowing and loving things that it’s even possible to overlook the unearned happy ending.
And that’s the last negative thing you’ll read here about this important and seriously delightful addition to the 21st century musical.
Besides, with Ben Platt’s multilayered, genuine, star-making performance as Evan, it would be painful to see anything really bad happen to him. You see, Evan, the lonely only child of a divorced working mom, accidentally becomes a social-media phenomenon after a letter he wrote to himself as a therapy assignment ends up in the pocket of Connor, a dark, troubled kid who kills himself. Evan lets himself get famous as Connor’s secret best friend, ingratiates himself with his rich family and becomes a social-media poster boy for voracious grief groupies.
Everyone is a fully developed person in Steven Levenson’s smart book, and the clever, sympathetic songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have a singer/songwriter pop intimacy that challenges expansive vocal ranges without seeming to show off.
The production by director Michael Greif (“Rent,” Next to Normal”) brings out the real-life depth in the eight exhilarating actors. The set by David Korins takes asymmetrical screens with internet projections far beyond cliche into something new and elegant.
Laura Dreyfuss, as Evan’s adored Zoe — Connor’s sister — has a grave decency that suggests she doesn’t realize her own beauty. Mike Faist brings a blazing, charismatic disaffection to Connor and to Evan’s imagined nicer ghost of Connor, though it is hard to believe such a dashing rebel would have had no outlaw friends. And Rachel Bay Jones, as Evan’s overworked mother, grows into a shattering portrait of lost girlhood.
Finally, there is Platt (the “Pitch Perfect” movies), with his astonishing vocal nuance and his rare ability to communicate bunches of conflicting feelings with just a frown and a hurt, hopeful smile. His portrayal of catastrophic, perhaps autistic alienation is so astute in the early scenes that, when Evan miraculously heals up, we feel a little guilty for missing the old one.