Letter Imperfect: “Dear Evan Hansen” On Broadway

Dear Evan Hansen
Ben Platt and Laura Dreyfuss in Dear Evan Hansen. Photo: Matthew Murphy

There are many things absolutely right about Dear Evan Hansen, which was such a click in its Off-Broadway run at Second Stage that a transfer to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre has just happened. So it’s a shame that a late and sizable script shortcoming lowers the rank of this tuner from surpassing musical treat to compromised excellence.

While this script shortcoming is something that I consider debilitating, it doesn’t manifest until the final moments of the show. For this reason, the fair, up-front approach is to rave about Dear Evan Hansen‘s outstanding elements, starting with Ben Platt’s star-making performance in the title role. But surely, too, the place to start is with Steven Levenson’s original book — despite a fumbled denouement.

Levenson imagines a protagonist whose self-esteem is lower than the proverbial cellar. Evan is so unsure of himself that a psychotherapist suggests he write himself letters of affirmation. The assignment is cheered on by Evan’s divorced mom, Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones), but he only slowly gets around to it. When he finally does write a letter, it’s a missive in which he pours out his longing for a schoolmate, Zoe Murphy (Laura Dreyfuss), which then falls into the hands of Connor (Mike Faist), Zoe’s brother, just a few hours before the disturbed young man takes his life.

Connor and Zoe’s parents, Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and Larry (Michael Park), then find the letter when going through Connor’s clothes and assume he’d received it from Evan. They had believed that Connor had no friends, but now they see the letter as evidence of a relationship between Evan and Connor — and not a gay one, as Evan avers. Since that presumed evidence of friendship gives Connor’s parents something to hold onto, they invite Evan to their home. They hope to learn anything that might assuage their grief.

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Sensing the family need — and hoping to ingratiate himself with Zoe — Evan does what he thinks is a harmless good deed by offering a few details about his nonexistent friendship with Connor. Egged on by Jared Kleinman (Will Roland), a sort of family friend, Evan elaborates on his fibs until they become enormous lies. Within weeks, his fabrications turn a manufactured friendship into a bond that not only gets the school behind him but, thanks to ambitious chum Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd), becomes an Internet phenomenon.

This is where Levenson’s script attains the ingenious, for as the fictional friendship goes viral, so does Evan himself go viral with it. He  becomes so infected with his tale — and to a romance with Zoe — that by the second act he is increasingly intent on doing whatever is necessary to keep his lies believed.

Dear Evan Hansen is an artful tale bolstered by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s energetic music, which Paul arranges for utmost oomph and Ben Cohn conducts accordingly. Along the lively way, there’s a ballad for Evan and Zoe, “If Only I Could Tell Her,” that also ought to go viral. It would if these were the days when record companies looked to Broadway for new songs and artists to introduce. (To be fair, Pasek and Paul are hot in Hollywood right now, having penned the tunes for La La Land, touted as one of the year’s best flicks. Perhaps there’s an Oscar-winning ditty there?)

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Adding to the story’s inspiring, overflowing angst is the set that designer David Korins keeps relatively simple so as to let Peter Nigrini’s agitated projections predominate, stressing the inestimable influence of social media on young lives. Levenson clearly believes that without the Internet, Evan couldn’t have fallen down the rabbit hole. Nigrini sees to it that the point is indisputably made.

So, too, does director Michael Greif, who adds this well-orchestrated frenzy to a resumé specializing in despairing young adults, including Rent and Next to Normal. As the baffled parents, Jones, Thompson and Park are surprisingly, reassuringly three-dimensional. As the young crew, Dreyfuss, Faist, Roland and Lloyd bring their own inner spotlights into play whenever required.

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Now to Platt, plucked from the film Pitch Perfect, and his mesmerizing turn. Evan, disliking himself in the way of many young people, is ripe for someone with this actor’s abundant talents. If he wouldn’t be instantly declared a dreamboat, he’s nonetheless good-looking — something closer to the cuddly end of the spectrum and that’s part of his charm and appeal. as Evan’s fears prompts his actions, Platt hooks us from his first scene and keeps us so hooked. Evan may cause havoc, but Platt’s charm keeps Evan in our embrace. The actor builds on that in “Words Fail,” a final breakdown in which he tears up — a tactic, to be sure, but one that reels us in even further. Platt’s is a performance you can’t beat with a stick, and the truth of Dear Evan Hansen is that it’s right in line with the definition of tragedy: the story of a basically good person done in by a tragic flaw. Evan’s flaw is his inability to stop from dissembling. It is, after all, the only tool he has with which to promote himself.

But here’s where Platt’s performance ties directly to Dear Evan Hansen‘s unfortunate denouement. Let’s just say that the show’s creators couldn’t bring themselves to reach the conclusion to which they were relentlessly heading. Levenson, Pasek, Paul — they all lack the courage of their dramatic convictions, and thus contrive for Evan an unearned redemption. Put another way, Levenson, Pasek and Paul don’t lack the courage of their commercial convictions. Happy endings usually serve musicals, but not here.