Arena Stage’s latest musical may be birthing the next Broadway stars.
Arena Stage has had significant success in reviving the great, mid-20th Century musicals like “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” But with the debut of a new, much smaller musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” Arena has a hit that is more in keeping with the 21st Century, and it is an insightful audience-pleaser.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is about teenage angst, a high school senior who is lonely and has no friends. The title character is played by Ben Platt in a performance of poignancy and pain, with a commanding voice destined for a big Broadway career. You feel his awkwardness and inability to connect with other people, especially his classmates.
He wants what teenagers want: friends, a girlfriend and a perfect family. Instead he has an overextended mother Heidi, (Rachel Bay Jones), working long hours while also studying to be a paralegal. She is sympathetic and desperately trying to cope with being a single parent and worries about her son’s inability to make friends. And he doesn’t have a girlfriend. He is wearing a cast on his arm and can’t even find anyone to sign it.
A therapist advises that Evan write letters to himself. He writes a Dear Evan letter, emphasizing his frustrations and loneliness and ending with, “would anybody notice if I disappeared tomorrow?”
Evan is carrying the letter when he bumps into a troubled, misfit teenager, Connor (Mike Faist) who is also friendless. He angrily signs Evan’s cast in large letters and takes the letter away from him. He has the letter in his pocket when he commits suicide and Connor’s bereft parents and others believe it was written to Evan. The parents find solace in that their son had at least one friend. And Connor’s sister, Zoe, a wise Laura Dreyfuss who is and becomes the girl of his dreams, even though she is skeptical of all the good things Even has to say about the difficult Connor she knew.
This is where Evan could have told the truth, but it is so important to Connor’s parents that the small lie seems insignificant. What happens is significant. The story of the letter and the friendship sweeps the school and people who never knew Connor want to be part of the tragedy, and Evan, helped by his cynical friend Jared (Will Roland), who has some of the best and most humorous lines, creates a tribute Facebook page that goes viral. It reaches such a crescendo that it is even decided to raise funds for a memorial to Connor.
“Dear Evan Hansen,” with the book by Steven Levenson and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is not a traditional musical. It has little choreography with an often dark and cynical story line that could function as well without music. But what makes it work is that director Michael Greif has assembled an eight-character cast, all with believable performances and great singing voices, highlighted especially by the leads, Platt and Dreyfuss.
The music isn’t memorable, but “Sincerely, Me” and “Requiem,” are standouts, as is “So Big/So Small,” Heidi’s solo that comes at the end of the second act. Her pain evokes tears.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is as modern as the dominating Internet with its constant barrage of information, unfiltered and often wrong. Evan’s lies about his friendship with Connor, someone he only met once, is out of control and takes on a life and reality of its own.
The lies give Evan a loving family with Conner’s mother Cynthia, (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and father Larry, (Michael Park). Most importantly is the growing love between Evan and Zoe that does improve his self-confidence. The deception can’t last and eventually falls apart, much of it brought on by Alana, (Alexis Molnar) who is caught up in creating more information to feed the insatiable internet taste for more about Connor.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is almost a Hallmark Cable television production about a lonely boy who gets caught up in what he sees as a harmless lie. The play is darker and Levenson has avoided a happy ending, even though Evan moves on with his life without an adopted family and without Zoe. He does, however, have more of a normal future ahead.
For Arena, “Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical with wide audience appeal, especially for younger audiences. There will undoubtedly be more smaller musicals like it in the future, but Arena will continue with the big annual musical that has brought so much success and will produce “Oliver” that will run from the end of October into early January.
“Dear Evan Hansen” runs through August 23 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW. Tickets are $110 and available at 202-488-3300 or online here.