There are a lot of great shows in town this month. There’s the fan-favorite The Book of Mormon, the charming and captivating Once, the grassroots Capital Fringe Festival (which just ended)—even Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett are joining in with their jazz performance this weekend at The Kennedy Center.
With a crowded theatre scene this summer and amazing performances all-around, Dear Evan Hansen is a breath of fresh air and is quickly becoming the hottest ticket in town. Frankly, it’s stepping into the spotlight and poised to be the metaphorical Hamilton of the nation’s capital—and for good reason too.
Arena Stage bills the musical as a show about “a letter, a lie, a life he never dreamed he could have. Evan Hansen (Pitch Perfect’s Ben Platt) is about to get everything he’s ever wanted: the girl of his dreams, the perfect family he’s always longed for and a chance to finally fit in.” Alluding mysteriously to a “secret he has to conceal,” the show centers around the universal themes of grief, belonging, family, friendship, and how we feel within the context of a modernizing and ever-connected world.
So, what is it exactly then that makes the world-premiere musical directed by Michael Greif (If/Then, Next to Normal, Rent) so good?
Is it the all-star cast that includes Ben Platt (Pitch Perfect, The Book of Mormon), Rachel Bay Jones (Pippin, Hair), Laura Dreyfuss (Once), Jennifer Laura Thompson (Wicked, Nice Work If You Can Get It), and more? Or maybe it’s the inventive set design by David Korins (Hamilton, Annie, Motown) that transforms a small stage into a platform for the most intimate living room where a mother and son share a heart-to-heart to the physical abyss of internet cyberspace. Or perhaps it’s the book by Steven Levenson, who is not only an award-winning playwright, but also currently works as a writer and co-producer on Showtime’s Masters of Sex. Or maybe it’s the lyrics and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—whose lyrics are what I would call “Taylor Swift meets Broadway”—heartfelt lyrics with universal appeal joined by the perfect, oftentimes acoustic, accompaniment that can change the mood from somber to celebratory to sinister in a single bar of music.
Frankly, no single one of these factors alone would even make a show good, but a show with all of these factors—a show like Dear Evan Hansen in which these things work together in mellifluous harmony—are what makes Dear Evan Hansen great.
Let’s start with the cast. The Playbill bills Ben Platt as the “star,” but perhaps a better metaphor might be a constellation of eight stars that take turns gracing the stage each night.
Ben Platt, who plays the title role of Evan Hansen, is well known for his role as Benji in Pitch Perfect and its sequel, but this is far from his theatre debut. In 2012, he won a Broadway World Chicago Award for Best Actor in a Touring Production for his role as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, a role he later played on Broadway. Platt is the emotional anchor of the story, and he commands the stage with a sort of quiet confidence that is captivating to experience. Rather than overacting, he draws you in to experience the quirks and nuances of his character at a more intimate level. He acts from the tip of his fingernails to the contemplative crinkles on his forehead to the speed at which his character anxiously paces the stage. As someone who has truly embodied the title character, Platt walks the line beautifully between acting and singing—making his musical numbers feel natural and authentic.
Platt dazzles in the earlier numbers—like “Waving Through a Window” where he shares both the sorrow of feeling invisible but the hope that one-day he may step out into the world and feel acknowledged and understood. The accompaniment—which, at times, reminded me of the band A Great Big World—was appropriately simple and joyous. At only 21, Platt delivers a rousing performance for “For Forever”—a soaring ballad about friendship. His youthful innocence makes it feel as though his character is discovering himself too as the audience gets to know him while he sings through his adolescent feelings.
His love interest in the show, Zoe Murphy (Laura Dreyfuss) was the perfect complement to Platt. Dreyfuss, who was seen in productions of Hair and Once, and on Glee, plays the girl-next-door with an unexpected complexity that deepens the message of the show. Her voice is beautiful and haunting in her verse in “Requiem,” a song she sings with her parents in the show about grief, and enchanting in “Only Us,” a song that she sings to Evan Hansen at the turning point of their relationship.
Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson as Zoe’s parents capture the complexity of a dysfunctional household dealing with grief honestly and with nuance. Park’s commanding and booming voice are perfect for his paternal presence in “The Right Way,” a song during which he teaches Evan Hansen how to wear-in a baseball glove the right way while imparting an important life lesson by metaphor. Thompson—who was light on the musical numbers—nonetheless shines from scene-to-scene as the slightly overbearing, slightly disconnected mother just trying to do her best to keep the family together. Their portrayal of dysfunction and imperfection makes the performance feel raw and authentic.
Rachel Bay Jones as Evan Hansen’s mother Heidi is unforgettable. Her penultimate song “So Big/So Small” brought tears to my eyes. A protective single mother who has dedicated her life to her son’s future, Jones has a unique warmness and roughness to her voice that melts into a unique sound that meshes with the plight of her character—a loving woman thrown into an unforgiving circumstance.
Mike Faist as the troubled Connor Murphy, Alexis Molnar as the high-school acquaintance Alana Beck, and Will Rolland as the best friend Jared Kleinman are magnificent as the important people in Evan Hansen’s adolescent life. Mike Faist captures enigma perfectly as he walks the line between friend and foe. Alex Molnar as the overachieving outsider delivers a compelling performance despite the narcissism of her character. Finally, Jared Kleinman is the perfect foil to the seriousness of the show—with the perfect comedic timing and tone to keep the show from being too heavy.
With these stars in motion against an amazing set by David Korins, accompanied by soaring melodies by Pasek and Paul, and propelled by a compelling story by Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen touches you in the most profound way. Following in the footsteps of similar, though unique, shows about dysfunction like Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, and Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen is poised to be the next showstopper in a growing genre that doesn’t shy away from tackling difficult issues in the modern age.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Dear Evan Hansen plays through August 23, 2015 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.
Magic Time!: A Love Letter to ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ by John Stoltenberg.
Dear Evan Hansen info on Pasek and Paul’s website.