Songwriting Duo's ‘Dear Evan Hansen' Hits Letter-Perfect Notes

Evan Hansen, the teen title character of the latest musical by “Dogfight” composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, sees a therapist. As a self esteem-building exercise, the doctor has Evan write letters to himself: “Dear Evan Hansen,” begins one. “Today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why.”

What transpires in “Dear Evan Hansen,” running through May 22 at Second Stage, is often amazing for audiences, but confounding for the title character, a nervous and twitchy Ben Platt, of the “Pitch Perfect” films. Michael Greif, the still-keen teen observer behind “Rent” and “Next to Normal,” directs. 

Early on, Connor, a high school student with the most tenuous of connections to classmate Evan, commits suicide. In Connor’s possession, his parents find one of Evan’s letters, but mistake it for a note written by their son to Evan. They latch on to Evan, as the closest living link to their lost child.

Rather than clearing the air, Evan runs with it, forming a youth self-empowerment group (“The Connor Project,” naturally) and organizing a Kickstarter campaign, intended to fund an apple orchard in Connor’s honor. There’s a web of lies to be spun and a narrative to be created.

Let’s talk about Evan: He’s awful. Selfish. Manipulative. Self-absorbed. And really sweaty. In short, a realistic teenager (Platt, whose dad is a lead producer of “Wicked,” is 22.) Evan doesn’t mean to be any of these things, and it’s obvious he’s not, at heart … but he’s setting up the people in his orbit for a world of hurt.

The trick here is keeping Evan sympathetic, as the audience is considering his actions. Platt finds a way to pull that off, while staying true to the character. It's plain old good acting.

With his muted wardrobe and black painted nails, Connor could be a romantic hero, or a killer. Says one student, observing the sullen one’s newly grown-out hair: “It’s very school-shooter chic.” Mike Faist (CSC’s “A Month in the Country”) walks a fine line as the troubled figure, who appears in conversation with Evan from the afterlife, sometimes dancing. 

Platt, Faist and a caustic Will Roland (as one of Evan’s “friends,” but just barely) collaborate on one of the musical’s most high-energy songs, “Sincerely, Me,” with its stirring choreography by Danny Mefford (“Fun Home”). With its themes of outsiderness, anxiety and the death of a child, the parallels to “Next to Normal” are readily apparent, especially here.

Meanwhile, I have my own idea for a Kickstarter campaign: Let’s put Rachel Bay Jones (“Pippin”) in every show that opens next season. She imbues with depth a potentially one-dimensional role, as Evan’s overworked single-mom, a nurse’s aide, training to be a paralegal.

Broadway vet John Dossett and Jennifer Laura Thompson, as Connor’s parents, will tug at your heart. Laura Dreyfuss, as Connor's sister, Zoe, appears in very much the same vein as Jennifer Damiano, in "Normal."

Director Greif’s hand is particularly evident when Evan and a too-earnest schoolmate (Kristolyn Lloyd) roll out “The Connor Project,” “a major online presence … with links to educational materials … a massive fundraising drive … to help people like Connor.” I could practically hear Angel, from “Rent,” saying: “There’s a Life Support meeting at 9:30.”

David Korins’s set, with its ever-changing video projections of Facebook posts, evoked the Off-Broadway “Bare” revival that debuted at New World Stages a few years ago, with its thousands of Instagram images.

Of many commendable elements in Steven Levenson’s book is the subtle note on which the story wraps. We’ve sat in the audience imagining every possible scenario for how it all may play out, but the team keeps up the suspense. Where it all lands, finally, feels textured, accessible, believable and original.

Paging Broadway?

“Dear Evan Hansen,” through May 22 at Second Stage, 305 W. 43rd St. Tickets: $89-$104. Call 212-246-4422.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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