Monday, January 02, 2017

Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen is an intimate, well-crafted, well-performed musical, the kind that tidily trashes the generalized dismissal of musical theater as an emotionally overwrought genre filled with forced cheeriness and an abundance of glitz. Performed by a small cast on a sleek, deceptively simple set of sliding panels designed to look like the glossy, liquid screens of laptops, tablets and cellphones, Dear Evan Hansen is, on one level, about the way teenagers relate to their peers and to adults (or don't) in the technological age. But it goes deeper to examine contemporary cultural phenomena, like technology's role in what is sometimes referred to as "inspiration porn" and the ways that the very existence of the Internet can magnify the sorts of awkward, unpleasant social shit adolescents struggle with and always have, even when it couldn't be magnified and instantly replicated across the world with the click of a button.

The musical is moving, layered, and very impressively performed. There's been a lot of buzz, which began when the show premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage last spring, about just how brilliant Ben Platt is in the title role, and it's entirely warranted. Only a handful of years older than Evan, a high-school senior, is supposed to be, Platt clearly remembers well the emotional roller-coaster of adolescence. His Evan is all coiled anxiety, crippling self-consciousness and monstrous self-doubt, and the character is as frustrating and as heartbreaking as your average teen can be. Evan's single mom, an equally memorable Rachel Bay Jones, works long hours, takes classes at night, and thus tends to worry about and dote on her son from a harried distance. It's a testament to the writing and the performances that their relationship, ultimately the heart of the musical, never feels hollow or strained.

Neither, really, does the slightly tidy ending, which is a little cleaner than it surely would have been had the proceedings depicted in Dear Evan Hansen taken place in real life instead of over the course of a two-hour musical. Still, and while it never tortures its characters, Dear Evan Hansen makes it clear that none of them make it through a tough, morally questionable stretch without consequences: some close relationships are ruined; others grow much stronger. Still, the show implies, everyone involved will move on, heal, eventually be all right. This is not a bad message to impart; I took it as a gift.

And for the record, my daughter, the friends I saw the show with, and I can't wait for the cast recording to be released later this winter.

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