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Beyond epitaphs and obituaries, today’s dearly departed get an extra legacy: a social media presence. On their surviving Facebook profiles, middle-school friends and long-forgotten acquaintances show up alongside BFFs and family to chime in with rose-tinted memories. The platform lets users tap a friend or family member to manage their accounts when they die—and after seeing Dear Evan Hansen, a new musical that premiered at Arena Stage last week, viewers may rush home to nominate a caretaker.
The latest collaboration between the Tony-nominated composing duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen is a sweet meditation on the excruciating loneliness of adolescence and grief in the social media age. Rare are the musicals that can reconcile topics as dark as teen suicide with those as puerile as jacking off, coaxing gleeful giggles from the audience in between sobs. Spring Awakening was one; this is another.
As the titular outcast with acute social anxiety, Ben Platt brandishes more awkward tics (a vigorous blink, a nail-picking habit, a constant tugging at his backpack straps) than most bodies could manage. A lesser actor might have made it a parody, but on Platt, it reads true, an accurate rendering of a friendless teen who’d rather skip dinner than have to interact with a delivery person at the door.
When Evan’s troubled classmate Connor (Mike Faist) kills himself, a computer lab mix-up leads the deceased’s family to believe that Evan was his best and only friend. Evan conveniently neglects to correct the misconception and—wooed by his newfound social currency and the doting attention of Connor’s parents and crushworthy sister, Zoe—invents an entire meet-cute story of a friendship that never was. Finally, Evan’s found the antidote to his bewildering isolation: “We start believing that we belong/But every sun doesn’t rise, and no one tells you where you went wrong,” he sings. Led by director Michael Greif, the able cast makes up a community striving for connection in a harsh, alienating world.
At 30, Pasek and Paul (along with 31-year-old playwright Steven Levenson, with whom they developed the story) are young enough to make invocations of Kickstarter and retweeting for a cause feel apt, never forced or gimmicky. But Peter Nigrini’s omnipresent, fragmented projections of Facebook feeds and text conversations become a distraction. They do provide some comic relief: The inbox of Zoe and Connor’s dad is shown as an outdated Outlook setup to the kids’ Gmail, full of boring dad emails about mergers and the law school alumni association. Still, when there’s enormous text onstage, the audience diverts its attention—and while our mobile Internet devices are indeed distracting, onstage effects should never sacrifice the emotional impact of the story to make a point.
Thankfully, the score is powerful enough to drown out the digital white noise. Teen angst has long been best expressed in song, and Dear Evan Hansen’s power-pop soundtrack is just what the guidance counselor ordered. There’s rhythmic pick-and-strum à la Ani DiFranco; surging strings that recall every tearjerking Snow Patrol ballad; and “Sincerely, Me,” a jaunty Broadway-ready trio that finds Evan and his smug, pervy kinda-friend (Will Roland) composing fake pre-death emails between Connor and Evan. The three actors hit every laugh line on the bullseye, including the only genuinely funny “no homo” joke I’ve ever heard. If the whole show were an extended rendition of this number, I wouldn’t complain.
Rachel Bay Jones gives another of the show’s better performances as Evan’s well-meaning, over-worked single mom who manages the oxymoronic role of an absent helicopter parent, bringing class complications into Evan’s double life. Audience members who caught Laura Dreyfuss’ leading turn in Broadway’s Once will recognize her muted, demure delivery and hands-in-pockets diffidence as the woefully underdeveloped Zoe. Dreyfuss’ satin vocals are a treasure; it would be nice to see her in a role that, unlike her parts in both Once and Dear Evan Hansen, offer more than a backdrop for her leading man’s growing self-confidence.
Here, at least, the leading man is worthy of the honor: A magnetic, touchingly vulnerable presence, Platt makes Evan easy to root for and easier to cry for at the show’s moving conclusion. Dear Evan Hansen treats the trials of teendom with the sensitivity it deserves in a story that, for all its reliance on social media, feels timeless. Maybe parents just don’t understand—but maybe after watching this refreshing new musical, they will.
1101 6th St. SW. $40–$100. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.