The very thought of a Broadway transfer of “Dear Evan Hansen” might chill the blood of theatergoers who loved this bittersweet show when it played in the intimate setting of Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theater. But through the alchemy of Michael Greif, who directed the original productions at Arena Stage and at Second Stage, Broadway’s Music Box Theater proves a perfect fit for this sensitive musical starring a sensational Ben Platt as a neurotic misfit trying to survive senior year in high school. As for the music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul: Not since “Next to Normal” has a score tapped so deeply into the troubled psyche of its needy protagonist.
Evan Hansen (Platt) is a pathologically shy loner who is trying to work through a few psychological issues — like talking to people without fainting or throwing up. Taking his cue from the boy’s painful lack of communication skills, David Korins has designed a stunning abstract set in which sheer curtained screens are imprinted with snippets of social media, full of the very words that elude Evan as he struggles to express the thoughts and feelings locked inside him.
The insightful lyrics in the score by Pasek and Paul seamlessly merge with the dialogue of Steven Levenson’s book. “Is anybody waving back at me?” is the heart-stopping last line of “Waving Through a Window.” “Two friends / True friends / On a perfect day” are the equally powerful last lines of the spine-tingling “For Forever.”
In song after song, the lyrics go beyond the spoken thought and reach for the unspoken feelings hiding behind the words. Better yet, there’s not a hint of sentimentality. Evan’s awkward efforts to write a friendly email to Connor are downright hilarious, in a pathetic way: “Dear Connor Murphy / Yes, I also miss our talks / Stop doing drugs / Just try to take deep breaths and go on walks.”
Book and lyrics are equally driven by the character of Evan. Although he’s made it to senior year, Evan suffers from the kind of debilitating anxiety that demands regular shrink visits and many pills. Platt (an extraordinarily personable actor who appears as Benji in both “Pitch Perfect” movies) gives a carefully choreographed physical performance that makes his emotional discomfort painfully clear. His shoulders slump, his chest caves into his backbone, his whole body is wracked with physical and vocal tics.
Under the thoughtful direction of Greif (“Rent,” “Grey Gardens,” “Next to Normal”), Platt goes beyond physical specificity to get under Evan’s itchy skin and into his unsettled mind. And the introspective, gentle score becomes the language of his troubled thoughts and unspoken yearnings.
Strictly speaking, Evan isn’t exactly a loner. He’s alone and lonely and too self-conscious to make any friends, aside from cynical, smart -mouthed Jared (Will Roland, who was himself probably a high school brainiac). Book writer Levenson has given Evan the funniest and most pathetic symbol of teenage loneliness — someone so unpopular, he can’t get anyone to sign the cast on his broken arm.
Evan’s mom, Heidi (in a warm performance by Rachel Bay Jones), is a caring mother. But she works long hours as a nurse’s aide while going to school at night to become a paralegal. To her credit, she makes sure that her son takes his meds and sees his shrink, who has given him the ego-building task of writing himself a chin-up letter every day. “Sincerely, Me,” a sweetly wry song about these back-patting letters, finds Evan alone on a dark stage, bombarded by visual cues from the social media sites that he and his classmates live by. (Peter Nigrini did the fine projections, in conjunction with Japhy Weideman on lighting.)
But Evan can’t put his heart into these letters to himself, and by the end of the song, he’s thoroughly depressed. “Would anybody even notice if I disappear?” As it turns out, the message of this touching show answers that cri de coeur in the lyric of a song: “No one deserves to disappear.” No matter how lonely you are, how lost, “You are not alone / You will be found.”
In a twist of fate (and plot), one of Evan’s discarded letters is picked up by Connor Murphy (a terrific turn from Mike Faist). Connor is the brother of Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss, smart and sensitive), the object of Evan’s hopeless crush. Connor is also a very troubled kid, who wears his hair long and messy and dresses in a style that Jared flippantly describes as “school shooter chic.”
When Connor commits suicide with the letter still in his pocket, everyone takes it as a suicide note, jumping to the conclusion that he and Evan were great friends. Invisible to the entire student body until this dramatic development, Evan suddenly finds himself in the spotlight. The students set up a website to honor their “friend” and collect money for a memorial. “Connor’s being dead is the best thing that ever happened to you,” snaps snippy Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd).
In his agonizing self-consciousness, Evan is unable to make it clear to Connor’s parents (given painfully realistic performances by Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park) that he and their son barely knew one another. And after seeing how pathetically happy it makes them to think that their miserable son actually had a friend — and ever mindful of the proximity of his beloved Zoe — Evan gives in and plays the role of the family’s surrogate son.
But having made a person of Connor, Evan buys into his own fantasy. Connor becomes “his best and dearest friend.” The friend who shares his love of trees and climbs to the top with him. The friend who runs to Evan when he falls and breaks his arm.
“We’d talk and take in the view,” is the lovely, lying memory in the song “For Forever” — just “two friends on a perfect day.” We only wish it were true.