What does it look like when a star is born? In the case of Ben Platt, the astonishing young actor who plays the title role in Dear Evan Hansen, it’s a bit like an actual birth: beautiful but strange and wet, tinged with confusion and danger. Evan is painfully introverted; he has no friends in high school, and even the thought of talking to a girl he likes, Zoe (the poignantly unaffected Laura Dreyfuss), makes his palms perspire. Platt’s performance extends that to his whole body; when he sings, his face often gleams with sweat. Yet the effect is not off-putting; Evan is immensely lovable, even when he makes terrible mistakes. He speaks in rushes of instant regret, as though frantically digging a hole to bury himself in, and his intense awkwardness is filtered through first-rate comic timing, high-wire dramatic acting and a gorgeously expressive tenor voice.
Simply put: Platt is giving one of the greatest leading male performances I’ve ever seen in a musical, and the thrillingly modern and moving Dear Evan Hansen is worthy of it. Like its closest musical-theater relative, Next to Normal, the show takes on challenging subjects—death, grief, class, mental illness, social media, social anxiety—with unapologetic trust in the power of contemporary pop music to tell complex stories onstage. As in its Off Broadway run at Second Stage earlier this year, the musical benefits mightily from Michael Greif’s dynamic direction, David Korins’s vivid set design, Peter Nigrini's cascading projections and an excellent cast that includes Kristolyn Lloyd and a deliciously smarmy Will Roland as Evan’s schoolmates. And it is anchored, again, by the wonderfully warm and raw Rachel Bay Jones as Heidi, Evan’s well-meaning but overextended mother. (The show gives her the first and last word on her son.)
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score, orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire, brims with tuneful and thoughtful songs that sound, as few Broadway songs do, like they could be on the radio tomorrow; Evan’s first number, “Waving Through a Window,” is an instant classic. And Steven Levenson’s book is unfailingly smart in setting up and building out the plot, in which a letter that Evan has written to himself gets mistaken for the suicide note of Zoe’s disturbed brother, Connor (Mike Faist). Evan lies about it, out of a combination of good intentions—he wants to comfort Connor’s parents (Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park)—and a need to be noticed by Zoe and the world. He has to be believed to be seen. Dear Evan Hansen must be seen to be believed.
Music Box Theatre (Broadway). Book by Steven Levenson. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. With Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfuss, Rachel Bay Jones. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. Click here for full ticket and venue information.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam
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