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‘Dear Evan Hansen’ review: Musical too light for heavy topics

Mike Faist and Ben Platt star in the

Mike Faist and Ben Platt star in the show, which centers on mentall illness and teen suicide. Credit: Matthew Murphy

WHAT “Dear Evan Hansen”

WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.

INFO $85-$100; 212-246-4422; 2st.org

BOTTOM LINE Serious, appealing new musical that gets too soft for its subject

Days after the Broadway season officially ended, off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre has opened the next likely prospect for a commercial transfer. “Dear Evan Hansen” is an ingenuous, multilayered original about how a teen suicide, a self-serving lie and voracious social media affect an escalating circle of alienated kids and their families.

The production is directed with smooth, appealing theatricality by Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Grey Gardens”). It also has a star-making performance by Ben Platt (“the “Pitch Perfect” movies). He is an astonishing young actor with an expansive vocal range and the rare ability to communicate bunches of conflicting feelings with just a frown and a hurt, hopeful smile.

This is central in convincing us to go along with Evan on his fascinating, troubling journey and to try to forgive the talented creators when they make us feel manipulated—even betrayed—by pat, sentimental takes on such serious subjects as mental illness and suicide.

But first come the good parts, which include the complex and clever music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“A Christmas Story,” “Dogfight”), full of asymmetrical phrase lengths and abrupt rhythmic changes that never jar with the winning accessibility. The cast is first rate and David Korins’ effective set has computer texts projected on screens.

You see, Evan begins as a seriously awkward, possibly autistic, clinically maladjusted teen whose (preposterously oblivious) unseen therapist has assigned him to write himself “Dear Evan Hansen” letters full of self-help affirmations. One despairing letter is picked up by Connor (portrayed with blazing, charismatic disaffection by Mike Faist), a rich kid described by Evan as “very school-shooter chic.”

Early in the story, Connor kills himself and the letter is in his pocket — a fluke that sets off a succession of dubious opportunities for Evan, who suddenly gets friends and a substitute family for the single mother (Rachel Bay Jones) struggling just to get his prescriptions filled.

In more than one way, the show feels like a companion to “Next to Normal,” the 2010 Pulitzer winner that Greif directed at this theater. That one involved a mom with catastrophic bipolar depression and delusions about a dead son. Despite the acclaim, the show’s score struck me as too light for its heavy lifting.

This time, the music—except for late-breaking dopey lyrics about stepping “into the sun”—is up to the demands. But the book, by Steven Levenson, keeps finding easy ways out of the crises. It’s not hard to imagine why people want a musical to end in a smile button. It is harder, I’m afraid, to earn it.

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