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5/2/16

Dear Evan Hansen…I’m So Glad You Exist

As creative teams for shows are usually staffed with people far removed from their teens and twenty-something years of age, depictions of such characters and stories mostly read as inauthentic. Take it from this writer - who is a twenty-something last year, today and will be for the next few years.

Almost a year ago, I paid a visit to New Jersey to see Be More Chill’s regional debut - which blew my mind in its accuracy in developing full-fledged characters with real world traits and problems in a high school setting (and bonus points for moments that I related to on a deep, too-personal level). I made veiled threats to the theatre powers that be kindly requested more shows of the sort and felt my demand wish was not an unreasonable one given how rarely shows revolve around a younger character set.


Like it spawned from my own brain, Second Stage Theatre is playing host to the now-open Dear Evan Hansen after it completed its run at Arena Stage in Washington D.C last summer. And lovely readers? I have not stopped thinking about this show since the final fade-to-black; it’s one to cherish...

From the get-go, Dear Evan Hansen provides a story and thorough characterization of outcast 17-year-olds in high school and their lifestyles (and by extension, their families) without framing Generations Y/Z as the awful, embarrassing young adults the Internet would make one believe. Nor does the creative team come off as an entitled authority on what life is like for high-schoolers. Everything looks as the world truly is, as noted by the monitors strewn across the stage featuring the clutter of social media feeds, chats, audio and video content. All of it is prevalent - essentially, the Internet universe serves as its own character - but more importantly, it is all presented without pretense or judgement.

That is all more important then you would probably think because Dear Evan Hansen has quite the story. You see, right before the start of senior year of high school, anxiety-striken and medicated Evan writes a letter to himself at the suggestion of his therapist. When said letter lands in the possession of Connor, another troubled individual, mere days before he commits suicide, Evan is misconstrued as being Connor’s only friend. This leads to Evan exacerbating the misunderstanding/deception in order to help Connor’s family through a difficult time (his two parents and his sister, whom Evan has a crush on) and eventually, to help himself as he achieves a newfound social status in school, acquires more confidence and eventually, becomes a viral-sensation.

Oh yeah, this ain’t no Bye Bye Birdie.

I don’t know what magic voodoo Steven Levenson conjured up, but the book isn’t just particular good by ‘normal book standards’, it’s strong overall and doesn’t shy away from the potentially off-putting subject matters. Evan dealing with anxiety and navigating the tumultuous terrain he is thrust into and Connor’s family coping with suicide and grief are the primary focus of Dear Evan Hansen. Other plot points and themes consist of a suicide's effect on a school (the freakishly spot-on notion that teens make the tragedy about themselves and engage in hashtag activism), the struggle for identity and connection in the digital age and parents trying to connect with their distant children. It is a broad scope to take in, but Levenson’s story, dialogue and character work felt like it was ripped straight from reality and it is well thought-out to boot.

And can I just say…as much as I love how an outcast teenager is the focal point of a story, I’m so glad it wasn’t at the expense of the adult characters. Connor’s parents, the wealthy, yet dysfunctional, unfulfilled couple, and Evan’s mother, Heidi, the well-meaning, but overworked single mother, came off as people you either know or are. When Evan calls bullshit on how Heidi treats his anxiety (with more medication and condescending therapy advice), I cheered him on as he stood his ground and felt bad for her that she just. doesn’t. get. it. When Heidi GOES. OFF on Connor’s family (as well-intentioned as the latter were) for pseudo-adopting Evan and offering up charity that way rich people do (a potential job offer, money for Evan’s college education), Heidi didn’t stand for any of it and rightly so. Much like Evan, the parents are all complex, flawed individuals as they try to to go on as they do, but Levinson’s writing makes you concerned for all of them anyways.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have done some of their best work with Dear Evan Hansen. In the spirit of full disclosure, I had no idea they were capable of such - other then a few songs from Dogfight, their music doesn’t occupy a lot of my iPod storage. But after the second number, “Waving Through a Window,” Evan’s FLAMAZING-sounding intro number that doubles as a modern pop-rock anthem for outsiders, I picked my jaw up off the floor and settled in for the long haul. They following up that FLAWLESS number (no, really, I’m listening to it right now as I type this up) with the GORGEOUS “For Forever,” as Evan ethereally recalls an afternoon (he did not spend) with Connor. The chorus hook, “all we see are skies for forever” complete with a riffling piano, kept ringing in my ear long after the song wrapped.

The score is not infallible though. Some of the songs feature too much talk-singing, like an opera without actually being one, while other songs don’t really have a start/finish delineation (odd, no?). And the second act bonding number between Evan and Connor’s dad - about tending to a baseball mitt because reasons - was a terrible idea, even if the story’s progression and emotional arc was maintained before, during and after.

But a large part of why Dear Evan Hansen is Dear Evan Hansen is because Ben Platt, Pitch Perfect’s Benji of our hearts and minds, is just that fucking incredible in the title role. Evan’s hyper-speed talking and twitchy nervous energy is a tough act to execute, but Platt falls into character without missing a beat. He’s also hilarious throughout - his self-deprication and show-opening monologues had the audience eating out of his hands and we just barely started. And as misguided as Evan’s actions are, we’re still on his side, pulling for him to wisen up and to combat his inner-demons. 

And then there is Ben’s singing - which is crazy insanity with a side of awesome. The back-to-back punch of “Waving Through a Window” and “For Forever” serve as great showcases of his range and is mined for all of the feelz. It might be hard to associate the bass in his voice with that of a teenager, but who the fuck cares - I can listen to his voice all day, every day.

Dear Evan Hansen may be an occasionally difficult watch, but with a creative team in fine form - including Michael Greif in the director’s chair - and with Platt at the helm, you’re in for a heart-breaking, beautiful and ultimately uplifting journey, one that happens to not be far off from reality. When the Broadway transfer happens - which seems like an inevitability at this point - I can't wait for the troves of students piling in and seeing themselves and their generation up on stage, so well-rendered.


Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

1 comment:

Nicholas said...

I watched the screening of be more chill im yet to watch the new screening I am handling bestdissertations.com for my final year project but after im done I will make a point of attending the screening