NEW YORK — "Dear Evan Hansen" is musical storytelling of the highest caliber, a work whose captivatingly generous spirit is matched by its exemplary intelligence and fearless embrace of deep feeling. It belongs in that pantheon of musicals that lovers of the form seek to experience over and over, so that — oh, heck. Let me just spell it out: the show left me a wreck.
It was pretty stunning last summer at Arena Stage, where it had its world premiere. Now, in its New York debut at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre, where it opened officially Sunday night, "Dear Evan Hansen" is even better. As a result of some skillful minor surgery by its creators, the musical and its infectious pop score now provide a more balanced family canvas, and a more refined psychological arc for its main character, a desperately lonely teenage boy whose self-serving mendacity mushrooms into a humiliating and hurtful public spectacle. This is a more finely wrought premise for a musical than one normally encounters: indeed, the show feels modeled at times on the sophisticated handiwork of musical theater's smartest composer, Stephen Sondheim. It takes a certain advanced aptitude to achieve clarity in a musical that features both complex exposition and a desire to capture acute nuances of personality in song.
The wise hands involved in shaping "Dear Evan Hansen," led by songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book writer Steven Levenson and director Michael Greif, accomplish a special magnitude of magic here. The success of the collaboration extends to many other aspects of the production. The fluid multimedia set by David Korins, the evocative projections by Peter Nigrini, the resonant orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, and the superb performances by Rachel Bay Jones, Laura Dreyfuss, Jennifer Laura Thompson, John Dossett, Kristolyn Lloyd, Mike Faist and Will Roland all contribute to an evening that comes across as wittily, affectingly complete.
I've left out one cast member because his work could be the subject of a review all its own. Ben Platt plays Evan Hansen, the troubled protagonist, and if his portrayal did not go to all the wrenching places this actor manages to take us, "Dear Evan Hansen" might be an uncomfortable sit. Platt reveals an affinity for the character that's both moving and eerie. Evan, a high school senior, is so tied up in knots of anxiety that his therapist has him, along with taking his meds, writing a daily letter of affirmation to himself. This activity is the source both of the play's title and, as we quickly discover, the misunderstanding that allows Evan to take advantage of a vulnerable family grieving the loss of their own son, an angry high school outcast named Connor, played terrifically by Faist.
The musical asks us to go out on a compassionate limb with Evan, for the ruse he perpetrates, after the initial mixup over one of his letters, seems inordinately cruel: Connor's mother (Thompson), father (Dossett) and sister (Dreyfuss) come to see Evan as an emotional rock to cling to — ironic since Evan is himself drowning in pain and sickness. Platt, though, delivers as amazingly transparent a performance as I've ever seen. It's raw to the point of transfixing. The actor drills to the core of Evan's tormented state, which is apparent in everything from his submissive posture to the bursts of fury at his mother, played by Jones to understated perfection. And yet this Evan is also funny and charming — and has pipes to boot — all of which endear him to us. The songs Pasek and Paul compose for him set Evan's turmoil to a powerhouse series of melodies, culminating in his heart-rending Act 2 solo, "Words Fail."
The delicacy of the portrayals by Jones's Heidi and Dreyfuss's Zoe, the girl Evan falls hard for, are softening counterpoints to Evan's demonstrable unease; indeed, it is his desire to be near Zoe — a yearning made touchingly concrete in their memorable duet, "Only Us" — that helps us to sympathize with Evan. (The expert portrait of suffering through loss rendered by Thompson and Dossett adds yet another emotional dimension.) Pasek, Paul and their skilled book writer, Levenson, further bind us to Evan by revealing how quickly the rest of the world is ready to buy Evan's lies, and as a result the story of Connor's death becomes a social media sensation. In this regard, Roland and Lloyd do sterling work as classmates of Evan's, who egg on the Internet's legions of handwringers.
This is one of the points of "Dear Evan Hansen": the superficial forms of concern facilitated by the web, for people we don't know, and have no need to know, are as phony as the falsities that trip up Evan. The point may be somewhat lost on those who don't follow along on Instagram or Twitter. And yet, you don't have to be fluent in Facebook to understand the language this musical speaks so beautifully, about the necessity for all of us to make the kind of authentic connections that matter, and last.
Dear Evan Hansen, book by Steven Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography, Danny Mefford; set, David Korins; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Nevin Sternberg; projections, Peter Negrini; music supervision and orchestrations, Alex Lacamoire; music direction, Ben Cohn. About 2 hours 35 minutes. Tickets, $89-$150. Through May 29 at Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., New York. Visit 2st.com or call 212-246-4422.