The latest musical at the Music Box Theatre, "Dear Evan Hansen" explores fitting in, the social world of high school, teenage suicide, struggling parents, and provides a striking critique of social media. The new musical, directed by Michael Greif and starring Ben Platt (of "Pitch Perfect" fame) centers on a lonely boy with severe anxiety as he attempts to make friends, fit in, and get the girl of his dreams, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss).
To get through the day, his therapist has Evan write letters to himself that begin "Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be a great day, here's why." But when another student, Connor (Mike Faist) steals his letter and later commits suicide, the deceased's parents assume the letter is a suicide note to Connor's only friend. Confused, overwhelmed, wanting friends, desiring attention, and desperate to help Connor's distraught parents, Evan says that he and Connor were secret best friends. For the rest of the musical, Evan's lie spins out of control as he becomes a viral sensation, giving speeches, writing letters, raising money, and forming the Conor Project to keep his memory alive and build a memorial--all for a classmate Evan never even knew.
Although the show presents an ambiguously-disabled Evan Hansen, the character remains incredibly sympathetic, even as he lies to a dead boy's parents, his own mother, his girlfriend (who happens to be Connor's sister), and his entire school. The success of this character lies in the incredibly nuanced and emotional performance by Platt, who certainly seems in the running for all the Best Actor in a Musical awards. By the end of the performance Platt is dripping tears, snot, and sweat, almost unable to make it though each heart-breaking ballad.
The score (music & lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), while beautiful and full of belting and ballads, often falls flat, with all the songs sounding similar. That being said, the song(s) are catchy and emotional, certainly to become favorite among musical theater fans. Thankfully, each of the lead characters has their ballad and thus an amazing chance to shine. In particular, Evan's single-mother Hiedi (Rachel Bay Jones), who has to work non-stop to support him but in exchange is never around, brings the audience to tears in her ballad about raising her son alone in "So Big / So Small." Platt gets the best songs of the show--"Waiving Through a Window," "For Forever," and "Words Fail"--constantly keeping the audience in his grasp with his impressive vocals and emotional drive. However, it is the Act I finale, in which the high school rallies around Evan's attempts to keep Connor's legacy alive, that the show becomes triumphant and memorable; "You Will Be Found" is anthem about friendship, fitting in, navigating the toxic environment of high school, and dealing with the death of a young person.
Other than the catchy ballads and emotional performances, what is most important about "Dear Evan Hansen" is its commentary on social media. The set (designed by David Corins) consists of mostly television screens, upon which projections (designed by Peter Nigrini) of social media constantly update throughout the show. Facebook, twitter, snapchat, vine, blogs, websites, emails, and more with constant bings and updates. Although the idea of social media projections onstage is not completely new, the execution in "Dear Evan Hansen" is much more successful than other, smaller attempts.
This musical represents a new trend among millennials that is as fascinating as it is disturbing. When someone dies, young people feel the need to immediately post all over social media, putting up pictures and long statuses about they were best friends with the dead person and how they changed their life forever, telling others they can private message if they need to talk. All of this is a public display of emotion, a desperate attempt to prove your sadness and gain sympathy. "Dear Evan Hansen" portrays this in an amazingly critical way, with Evan's website gaining viral status as all the students at his schools post and re-post about how much they loved Connor (when in actuality he had no friends and was a pariah). One student, Alana (Kristolyn Lloyd) represent an entire generation and she narrates her facebook statuses about how much Connor meant to me, while simultaneously not being able to remember a single conversation they had and struggling to recall if she had Calculus or English with Connor in 10th grade.
In our modern age of social media, "Dear Evan Hansen" is a must-see. Go for the amazingly powerful and emotional acting performances or the beautiful ballads, stay for the poignant critique about technology and sympathy in the modern age.
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