|DEAR EVAN HANSEN|
Even on my fourth viewing of the Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen, the heart-stirring musical at The Music Box Theatre, I was frequently moved to tears by the show’s universal and topical subject matter, smarty explored by Steven Levenson’s well-written book, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s lovely score, and the ever-deepening work of a cast that (with one notable exception) has been part of this unusual enterprise for many years.
What I hadn’t been in some quite some time was surprised. Walking in, I couldn’t help but wonder how Taylor Trensch – just on stage a few weeks ago as the uber-innocent Barnaby Tucker in “Hello, Dolly!” – would step into the seemingly unfillable shoes of Ben Platt, who instantly became the stuff of legend with his vocally explosive and emotional portrayal of the title character, a painfully shy, anxiety-ridden high school senior who loses control of his life after one white lie.
Well, get ready! Unlike Platt, whose tick-filled Evan seemed to be suffering from some form of autism or Asperger’s disease, Trensch has created a young man who is both far more in control of his actions, and who is so obviously “broken” by his parents’ divorce when he was seven that he latches on to an unexpected offer of familial security, no matter the consequences. It completely refocuses the show!
The musical opens on the first day of Evan’s senior year when a letter that he’s written to himself (per the advice of his therapist) is stolen by fellow loner Connor Murphy (Mike Faist, imbuing a potentially hateful character with surprising sweetness). When Connor kills himself, the young man’s grieving, troubled parents (the splendid Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson) decide that the letter is actually their son’s suicide note, and an unprepared Evan not only goes along with the charade, but goes on to create a fantasy friendship with Connor.
It’s a very big lie – one that he’s been warned against creating by creepy family friend Jared (an extremely funny Will Roland), who nonetheless helps him perpetuate it. The false backstory also quickly escalates after hyper-achieving classmate Alana (a believable Kristolyn Lloyd) gets involved in making Connor a symbol for all lonely and isolated teenagers. And when a video Evan makes at his school goes viral on the Internet, it ultimately changes not only Evan’s life – especially his relationship with Connor’s sweet, unhappy sister Zoe (a lovely Laura Dreyfuss) – but the world at large.
Director Michael Greif, scenic designer David Korins and projection designer Peter Negrini use scrims full of the Internet as the show’s primary visual design, which is both quite appropriate to the material and makes a worthy commentary on the power (for good and evil) of social media. More importantly, this minimalist approach to set design somehow fills the Music Box stage.
So does Trensch’s booming voice –which is far more powerful and somewhat more conventional than Platt’s – which does full justice to Pasek and Paul’s haunting tunes, most notably “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever,” and “You Will Be Found.” While the rest of the cast has fewer chances to shine musically, towards the end of Act II, they allow the sublime Rachel Bay Jones, giving one of the most emotionally raw performances I’ve ever seen as Evan’s frazzled mother Heidi, to let loose with the remarkable “So Big/So Small.” As she plaintively recalls her terror at becoming a single mom – and reassures her son that she will always be there for him—make sure your tissues are readily available! (I think Jones won her much-deserved Tony Award in part for just performing that song!)
So dear theatergoers, if you get the chance to see Trensch in “Dear Evan Hansen,” it’s going to be an amazing day (or evening). Sincerely, me.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfuss, Rachel Bay Jones, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mike Faist, Michael Park, Will Roland, Kristolyn Lloyd
Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 11/14/2016
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036