BY DAVID KENNERLEY | “I cried my makeup off!” one young woman squealed as she joined her blubbering friends after seeing “Dear Evan Hansen,” the heart-piercing, soul-stirring new musical about a socially awkward, depressive high school boy desperate to fit in.
Not that you can blame them, for the work is cut from the same cloth as “Next To Normal” and “Fun Home,” which draw their power from intimate, harrowing character-driven narratives at once acutely specific and universal in their appeal. It’s no surprise the director is none other than Michael Greif, who helmed “Next To Normal,” and the choreographer is “Fun Home”’s Danny Mefford.
This bittersweet comic tuner, featuring a richly textured pop score by the gifted duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, may be courtesy of the Off Broadway Second Stage Theatre but it’s got Broadway-bound written all over it. The show even had an out-of-town tryout of sorts at Washington DC’s Arena Stage, which got rave reviews.
A misfit boy spins lies and catapults from ultimate outsider to ultra-popular
Your enjoyment, however, will depend on how easily you’re willing to buy the intricate, iffy premise (Steven Levenson wrote the book). Evan Hansen, whose fragile emotional state is reflected by his broken arm (he says he fell from a tree), types an ardent letter to himself as part of a self-help exercise, which gets into the hands of the even more disturbed class freak, Connor Murphy.
“I wish that I was part of something,” the letter says. “I wish that anything I said mattered to anyone.”
When Connor commits suicide and is found carrying the letter that opens with “Dear Evan Hansen,” his parents assume Evan and their son were secretly best buds.
Hoping to help the Murphys heal, Evan fabricates a story about their against-all-odds bond, proving that their drug-addled brute of a son was capable of relating to others after all. What’s more, Evan relishes the attention from Connor’s grieving family that he cannot get from his overburdened mother, who is working full time and taking night classes, and absentee father, who walked out on them years ago.
After delivering a touching speech about Connor rescuing him from his loneliness when no one else would, the story explodes on social media and Evan becomes an unwitting hero. Plus, he gets to spend time with Connor’s pretty sister Zoe, his secret crush. But how long can he keep up the charade?
The exquisite cast is led by a marvelously twitchy Ben Platt (“Book of Mormon” and the “Pitch Perfect” movies), who lends an endearing charm to the dweeby, ego-starved Evan, torn between grabbing a chance for happiness and telling the truth. His sweet, sonorous vocals make it easy to forgive Evan for being an opportunist and a liar.
Rachel Bay Jones, as Evan’s mother, beautifully articulates the turmoil of a doting mother losing patience with her needy son. As Zoe, Laura Dreyfus strikes a firm balance between sullen and sympathetic. Mike Faist, dressed in black, makes the most of the minimal, one-note role of the delinquent Connor.
The most amusing character is the caustic Jared Kleinman (played to smarmy perfection by Will Roland), a frenemy who agrees to help Evan concoct false, backdated emails to prove Ethan and Connor’s friendship. He gets the edgiest punch lines, suggesting that Evan broke his arm jerking off and that the two outsiders were gay lovers. He even sings about Connor in rehab hearing stories about “sucking dick for meth.”
The drama is supercharged by the bold, razor-sharp production design. Witness the head-spinning images (by Peter Nigrini) of kinetic Instagram and Facebook posts and pix projected onto a stark set (by David Korins, of “Hamilton” fame), punctuated by the occasional glimpse of an inviting azure sky.
In the second act, the plot twists become harder to swallow, and the sentiments border on maudlin.
If “Dear Evan Hansen” is about seeking meaningful human connection in an increasingly cynical, multi-tasking world, it’s also a commentary on the fickle, sometimes fraudulent and dangerous nature of online social media. Is the oft-repeated message “No one deserves to be forgotten” a touching tribute or an empty platitude? Judging from the cheers and tears from audience members both young and old, it really doesn’t matter.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN | Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St. | Through May 29: Tue.-Thu., Sun. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. $80 at 2ST.com | Two hrs., 25 mins., with intermission