Monday, May 9, 2016

Pasek & Paul: Dear Evan Hansen

Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones in Dear Evan Hansen. (Photo: Matt Murphy)

Dear Evan Hansen, which is selling out at New York’s just-off-Broadway 2econd Stage Theatre, is just about the damnedest musical I’ve ever seen. Steven Levenson’s book focuses on a teenage boy – the title character, played by Ben Platt – who struggles with self-image and anxiety problems so severe that he trips over himself whenever he tries to make contact with anyone besides his overloaded, trying-to-stay-positive mother (Rachel Bay Jones), who is raising him alone, and his classmate Jared Kleinman (Will Roland), the son of family friends, whom he’s known all his life. (Presumably Evan is so used to Jared’s sarcasm and casual insults that he barely hears them.) Evan’s therapist has given him an assignment to write cheerleading letters to himself to start his day, but the one he prints out at school on the first day of the new year isn’t positive; it lays bare his defeated state of mind. When another young man, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), whose own depression manifests in erratic, explosive bursts of unpredictable behavior, takes the letter away from him in school and later kills himself, his parents (John Dossett and Jennifer Laura Thompson) assume that it’s a suicide note left for Evan, a close friend they had no idea he had, and they go to see him. Too nervous and cowed to set them straight, Evan winds up weaving a complicated fantasy scenario around this secret friendship. When he finds himself invited into their family as – increasingly – a kind of idealized substitute for their lost son, he can’t resist the attention he’s getting, attention that he’s never had from his father (who’s remarried and lives across the country with a new set of children) or even his mother (who, for all her concern for Evan, is trying so desperately to keep them afloat financially that she’s scarcely ever at home). And Connor’s sister Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss), whose name is embedded in the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter because Evan has a crush on her, is an added bonus.

The plot is far-fetched and convoluted. To back up his lies, Evan persuades the computer-savvy Jared to open an e-mail account that he pretends Connor concealed from his folks and backdate a series of invented communiqu├ęs between them. A zealous girl in his grade, Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd), in a flurry of social activity that emerges from her own neediness, talks him into something called The Connor Project, an attempt to keep the dead boy’s memory alive. Pressed to speak at Connor’s memorial, Evan articulates – supposedly speaking on behalf of his vanished friend – all his own covert hopes for a world in which the sidelined and neglected will be noticed and beloved. His words find their way onto social media and he becomes a hero. Zoe falls in love with him. In the second act, when Levenson deals with the darker implications of those changes, his lies finally catch up with him, and the musical is saddled with more layers of narrative than it could possibly tie up, even if you bought its premise – and that’s one big if.

Yet I walked away from Dear Evan Hansen quite moved and I couldn’t shake it out of my head, because for all the improbabilities and contradictions in the book, the score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is utterly remarkable. Pasek and Paul wrote the music and lyrics for Dogfight, which 2econd Stage mounted in 2012 and which is currently having its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy. Dogfight was adapted by Peter Duchan from a 1991 film about a Marine en route to Vietnam in the early days of the war who invites a girl to a party on the last night of his San Francisco liberty in order to win a prize for bringing the ugliest date; it’s a musical about coarse masculine codes that’s set at the moment when they were about to become outmoded, and about redemption and learning the right way to be a man in the world. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and though the script is smart (in all the ways the clumsy movie wasn’t), the best thing about the show is the Pasek-Paul score – both the tunes, which straddle the genres of traditional show music and folk rock, and the lyrics, which appear straightforward when the songs start out but then spin surprising layers of meaning and emotion out of vernacular phrases while managing to capture the specificity of the characters who sing them.

Mike Faist and Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. (Photo: Matt Murphy)

Pasek and Paul accomplish the same feat in Dear Evan Hansen in numbers like “Waving Through a Window,” “Requiem,” “Good for You,” “Words Fail” and especially the first-act finale, “You Will Be Found” (Evan’s eulogy for Connor) and the surpassingly melodic and deeply affecting “For Forever” (Evan’s fantasy version of the best day he ever spent with Connor). “Waving Through a Window” is about teenagers – Evan and Alana – who feel that an invisible barrier separates them from everyone else; it made me think of the episode of the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which one of Buffy’s classmates literally disappears because she feels that no one knows she’s even there. “You Will Be Found,” with its optimism balanced precariously against the bitterness of experience, reminded me – thematically and emotionally, not musically – of “Come on in from the Outside,” the finale of the English rock musical Taboo, which played briefly on Broadway in 2003 but left behind one of the best scores of the last decade and a half (by Boy George). I can hardly wait for the cast of Dear Evan Hansen to record the album.

The other element of the show that makes it memorable is Ben Platt’s performance as Evan. In the book scenes Platt’s impersonation of extreme anxiety disorder – the cocked head, the compulsive laugh, the pinched-shut eyes, the trailing butt-ends of sentences – is accomplished and impressive but feels like a bit of a stunt. But when he throws himself into songs like “For Forever,” “You Will Be Found” and “Words Fail” – Evan’s attempt to explain himself to the Murphys when his lies are exposed – his emotional commitment has an almost frightening recklessness. I wish that Michael Greif, who directed the musical, had discouraged him and in fact all the cast from crying so much during their songs, but in these numbers Platt takes you to a psychological location that perhaps no other musical has ever gone. Next to Normal and Fun Home, both of which want to enter the unsettling psychological realms of unmoored individuals, excite audiences, especially young audiences, but when I saw them all I could hear in those songs was the self-conscious cleverness of the writers; nothing about them felt authentic to me. When Platt sang “Words Fail,” I believed every anguished word.

The entire supporting cast is good; Dreyfuss, as a young woman whose anger masks both fragility and sweetness, is terrific. The scenic designer David Korins, the projection designer Peter Nigrini and the lighting designer Japhy Weideman collaborate skillfully to create, with screens and computer images, a world in which the Internet simultaneously connects and isolates (and, at one point in the second act, attacks too – though this is an example of one of the loose ends that’s still flapping in the wind when the show reaches its conclusion). It’s common for musicals to fall apart in the second act and still leave you somehow satisfied because there’s so much wonderful stuff in them: Taboo and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, two of my favorites since the beginning of the millennium, both did. And God knows there are musicals where the book doesn’t match up to the score (you know, hundreds of them). But I can’t remember the last time I saw a musical I felt conflicted about in quite this way, pulled one way by a head-scratcher of a book you can’t buy for a second and the other way by a score and a leading performer whose achievements feel almost magical.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment