Another thing readers will know is that I traffic in spoilers. Ah ‘ont kerr. Shows, movies, I usually ‘review’ by explaining and commenting on the plot so caveat emptor. But an important part of the “Evan” experience is learning the story as it unfolds. Being spoiled and not getting to experience the story as it's told and as secrets are revealed and as surprises unfurl would be such a shame. By this point, I’m sure it’s impossible to have avoided all information as I did (unwittingly) a year ago, before this show was super duper popular. So I’m going to try my best to talk about the show without doing my usual spoiling spree. I am going to assume that you probably know it’s about a teenager committing suicide and how it affects those in his life (and not in his life) in the aftermath, both because I think it’s common knowledge in the show’s advertising and because I kind of already mentioned that above. Despite how awkward I think some of this will read, it’s worth it if anyone reading this has the chance to see the show. It’s so so special to me and I want you to gasp at least once when you see it or at the very least not be the person responsible for you not gasping.
“Dear Evan Hansen” tells the story of a high school student who suffers with some serious anxiety and has no real friends. He likes trees? and worked at a national park or some such maybe over the summer? where he fell from a tree and broke his arm (hence the show’s logo). He’s an outcast who feels invisible, as he tells us in his big song, the best song in the show on most days, “Waving Through a Window”. This is Evan’s first big song in the show, and it’s a beautiful, glorious beast. Ben Platt, Tony-worthy if there ever was such a thing, has to sing this monster of a song as the very first musical thing he does in the show. Like, it opens, he has a few short book scenes, and then the first thing he sings is this confession about how he feels like his whole life is being lived from the outside looking in, and like he’ll never be able to do anything about it. His performance bursts at the seams. It’s raw and wrenching and unmatched in terms of pure unadulterated vulnerability yet vocal insanity. That is until of course his next big song and then the same goes for that and then the next one after that and so on. He can sang, is what I'm saying, and he gives everything he has to every word he sings that there's really no medical explanation for how he regenerates. Ben’s physical commitment to this anxious, awkward character is so complete that you will forget that he’s acting. This full embodiment, with all the nervous tics and quirks and vocalisms, will convince some that Ben isn’t acting at all, that this has to be just how the actor is in real life, because it seems so natural and so impossible to fake, but he’s just an incredible actor, which you wouldn’t know if you just saw him do some cute magic in “Pitch Perfect” but you would know if you saw him in “The Book of Mormon”, playing Elder Cunningham even though he is skinny.
Evan lives with his mom Heidi, who works tirelessly as a nurse and goes to school at night and tries to take care of her son, so despite her meaning well, she isn’t aware of what’s going on with him. He also, like most teenagers, won’t be open and tell her. She tries to get Evan to take his anxiety meds and do what his therapist wants him to, but there’s only so much she can do when he won’t tell her that anything is wrong. Not that that excuses her lack of awareness, but it does explain it. As Heidi, Rachel Bay Jones is a force. She’s a favorite of mine because she took the usually nothing role of Catherine in “Pippin” and made it one of the funniest performances ever. She’s a brilliant comedian who should have won a Tony for that. Seriously my two biggest Tony Gripes™ are 1) Raul Esparza shattering the earth in “Company” but losing to David Hyde Pierce for I don’t know, Frasier? I mean I saw the show DHP won for and he was great as usual but come on, and 2) Andrea Martin winning for the same show when Rachel should have but wasn’t even nominated. Luckily, she is this year, for this powerhouse performance of a single mother trying to do her best. And it’s so impressive to see Rachel do a completely dramatic performance, without her ridiculous comedic skills to rely on. She breaks your heart reminding you that it’s not just kids who can feel invisible. I dare you not to do that awfully embarrassing hyperventilating crying when she sings her big wrenching song "So Big/So Small". JFC.
So, plot without spoilers, hmm. Very early in the school year, one of the characters commits suicide, and the show is about how the boy’s family and classmates, and others, deal with it. A tiny-seeming misunderstanding, one that could be cleared up with the simple phrase ‘oh that’s not actually what you think it is’, gives Evan a chance to at least pretend that his life has more meaning than it does, by fabricating a relationship with the boy in order to help the family grieve. His intention is debatable, because although he’s obviously going along with the lie in order to help the mourning family (‘oh look our outcast son had a friend, and he was a good friend back to him and not a total shit like we thought’), Evan continues the charade because it gives him purpose, and popularity, and the knowledge of what it’s like to be cared for. Which you can’t really blame him for! It’s an awful no good thing to lie about and ohhh how it growwws but this kid is feeling seen for the first time, and that’s hard to give up. The biggest problem people seem to have with this show is that they’re mad Evan gets away with so much, that he doesn’t get really punished for his lies, and that he’s doing a terrible thing, which makes him a terrible person. First of all, doing a dumb thing doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. And he does indeed suffer for it (have you SEEN Ben perform “Words Fail”? He literally is pouring snot out of his face), so I don’t know what other kind of punishment people want to see. Not letting him get into any college? What? He’s lying for the benefit of these people in mourning. What he does, when you consider how it affects them, is beautiful in the short-term. It’s confusing, because yes overall it’s terrible to be lying about it and that makes it hard to grapple with because the immediacy of how it soothes their aching souls is also beautiful. It’s a bit of comfort he’s providing when nothing else would do it. You see the stories and lies start taking shape slowly but deliberately, and it all happens so naturally that you’re kind of right there with Evan saying ‘oh just make something up to make them stop crying!’ And of course it gets out of hand, and it’s wrong from the beginning, but still it helped give them something to actually mourn for a little and you can’t fault him for that. The reasons for his lies get even more complicated when we learn how much Evan needed this too, because even just pretending that he mattered to someone brings him a lot of comfort. The criticism misses the point of what’s driving Evan to continue the fabrication, the reasons which are perfectly laid out in “For Forever”, the first time Evan starts lying to the grieving family about his friendship with the son. He tells them that their son was there when he broke his arm, saying “I’m on the ground/my arm goes numb/I look around/and I see him coming to get me/he’s coming to get me/and everything’s okay”. The truth is that Evan fell, all alone, and was on the ground for a while before anyone found him, alone with his misery (and the truth, we learn, surrounding his fall). The way Ben’s voice breaks when he says these lines, it’s obvious how badly he wishes it were true that a friend actually was there to find him when he was hurt. It’s heartbreaking and so clear at that point that Evan is doing this because he needs it just as much as the family does. And his game of pretend ends up giving his life and his relationships a lot more actual meaning than they otherwise would have had.
As the grieving mother, Jennifer Laura Thompson is a wreck most of her onstage time, and I don’t know how she does it. Crying the whole time is understandable, of course, that goes without saying, and Jennifer manages to bring you along with her the entire time as she sobs and then tries to smile and listens to stories and then sobs again. She doesn’t get much more to do than sob, but still she’s wonderful. She’s so perfect as a suburban white middle-class lady too, opening the show in the morning in her stretchy gym pants. We learn that, like all suburban white middle-class ladies worth their salt, she’s gone through periods of various trendy lifestyles to give her life some purpose or maybe just to be trendy, from being Buddhist last year (obvs) to one year ‘not eating anything that came from animals’. It’s too bad that one didn’t stick but honestly, this is the first vegan joke in recent pop culture that wasn’t very very lame, so bravo. As the father, Michael Park returns to Broadway (he originated the role) after John Dossett played the role off Broadway, and both were very good in a not very fleshed out role. (Honestly I didn’t know the actor had changed I’m sorry? Older white men I mean.) He’s a very stereotypical white man with money, talking about how stressed he is at work and how disappointed he always was in his no-good no-ambition son that was nothing like he was 'supposed' to be. His character does get more attention in the Act II opener when he teaches Evan how "To Break in a Glove” and gives Evan the baseball mitt that his son never touched. It’s heartwarming, but a little boring and slow – but you don’t even care that this is breaking my #1 show structure rule (you need a great rousing Act II opener to bring everyone back into the story after intermission) because you need a break from everything that came before. A 20 minute intermission is not long enough to get your heart rate back to normal and your head to stop whirling from all the painful crying before the break. So this song, although the weakest in the show, is fine but more importantly necessary because you need a little bit of an emotional break. And the fact that a scene of a father who lost his son teaching another boy whose father left him about baseball with the dead son’s glove is considered an emotional break (relatively) shows just how much you gon cry.
As Zoe, the cute girl that Evan has had a crush on forever, Laura Dreyfuss is wonderful. Her unique voice is really cool and a little gravelly despite her youth but shockingly strong at times, and she is completely believable in everything her character does. It adds another level to both the inappropriateness and the inexorableness of Evan’s lies that they bring him closer to his dream girl. I love her voice on “Requiem”, her refusal to mourn the brother she thought she hated. It’s such a glorious song, despite its melancholy, showing how the different family members react to the death, with the mother being optimistic that Evan’s stories (and fabricated emails) prove that she was right to always have faith in her son, and the father angry that the son disappointed him yet again. I also love the lyric Zoe sings “When the villains fall/the kingdom never weeps/no one lights a candle to remember” because this is soooo exactly “No One Mourns the Wicked” from “Wicked” (“No one mourns the wicked/no one cries they won’t return/no one lays a lily on their grave” &c) and I kind of crack up through the tears when I remember this.
As Connor, Mike Faist is sneakily good, so sneaky that his much-deserved Tony nomination was a huge but very welcome surprise to literally everyone, even the voters I bet. In his intense interactions with Evan after the suicide, Mike manages to maintain the true essence of Connor while still conveying that he’s being shaped by Evan, that he’s really a part of Evan’s imagination. His song “Disappear” is really moving when you look at it from both forms of his character, both the real Connor and the one that is a part of Evan. He’s also freaking hilarious in “Sincerely, Me”, the most fun song of the show and thank god an actual laugh-out-loud scene. This is in large part due to the comic relief Jared, played by Will Roland as every jewish boy who ever went to my overnight camp. When Evan tries to talk to him in school, Jared reminds him that they are just ‘family friends’, which is so suburban jewish I can’t stand it. His timing on his hilarious lines is the funniest part of the show, and so necessary because of the aforementioned floods of tears. He and Kristolyn Lloyd as Alana round out the cast as Evan’s main school friends, Alana being a very stereotypical overachiever who brags about all the various clubs she is president of. As a result, it is obvious that she would be ‘co-president’ with Evan when they form a suicide awareness group, and you accept it as just another thing she wants to put on her college applications. But of course, like everything in this show, it ends up meaning more, because of course, like everyone in this show, Alana too struggles with feeling invisible and like her life doesn’t matter, as does Jared, whose sarcastic and endless humor serves as his armor against the world. We don’t even consider that these two smaller characters would have the same problems and journey of self-reflection as our main character, but that’s the entire point of the show, that everyone has these same heartaches and worries and everyone feels unimportant at times. It’s the most universal, uniting show ever.
I know you’re probably like JFC this sounds like the saddest most miserable stuff you could sit through for 2 ½ hours. And it isssss but it’s also the most incredible and moving and important show in a while. I am still in awe in every way. The set, even. I loved the brilliant use of projections, usually and deservedly maligned for being a cheap and cheap-looking way to enhance scenery. But here, instead, it nails the modern age by using the projections almost exclusively to show social media and other internet usage. When Evan’s story begins to spread and then goes viral, the reactions of people on the internet across social media stream on the walls and pillars of the stage. That connection to how our lives really look today, I can’t get over how brilliant it is. Then, the book is so original, finally, a really truly original modern story for today, and the score is one of my favorites. That’s no surprise considering it’s from one of my favorite composing teams, Pasek & Paul, fresh off their Oscar-winning work on “La La Land”. It seems like “The Great Comet” is picking up Tony awards steam and so they might not win a Tony this year too, but they really should. This score will rip your heart out like I said before, but it will put it back together very carefully too. The story is inspired by Benj Pasek’s experience in high school, which adds more depth to the story’s real-life parallels and just ugh it’s so sad. It’s hard because everyone has lost or knows someone who lost someone in this way, and it seems crazy to sit in a dark theatre remembering your sadness. But the show tells us how important it is to learn from heartache and try to help even one person feel better in their skin. Yes, the big songs of the show, like "You Will Be Found", will make you sob, but that's because it's mostly uplifting and comforting, not just sad. It's such a great song. I really can’t get over how important this show is for kids, and adults, today, when everything seems so cruel and unfair and horrible. It’ll crush you and dehydrate you from crying, yes, but then it’s like a rainbow after the storm when it seems like everything is going to be okay. There's a sense of relief that comes with all the sadness, especially with "You Will Be Found" and the Finale, oh god that finale. I wish I could tell you to go see it now, heck I wish I could go see it again this weekend, but it’s sold out for a while (yay!!). Buy tickets for when you can though; you’ll be glad you did. And start listening to the cast album. BSE.