NEW YORK — “Historic” is an adjective I’ve rarely used to describe a performance, but a review that does not invoke it for Ben Platt’s incandescent turn in the ravishingly bittersweet “Dear Evan Hansen” would be doing it less than justice.
Platt, playing an anxiety-ridden teenager so convinced of his own worthlessness that he perpetrates a horrendous deception, just to quell the pain in his own shattered heart, provides here one of those portrayals that have you laughing, and at other times choking back tears, in sheer wonderment. It’s uncanny because his Evan Hansen seems both meticulously specific and resonantly universal. You’ll recognize this kid from somewhere in your life — and yes, perhaps somewhere in yourself. Even the most well-adjusted among us is likely to know the isolating sensation of not being understood by the world, and the somewhat contrary suspicion, too, that if people could read your mind, you’d be revealed as undeserving of any kind of affection at all.
With a heart-melting psychological transparency, a gift for exposing raw pain, and an octaves-dancing vocal range, this young actor is the captivating lead vessel for a marvelous score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and an equally accomplished book by Steven Levenson. And of course, he doesn’t do it alone up there, either, on the stage of the Music Box Theatre, where “Dear Evan Hansen” had its official Broadway opening Sunday night. Under the crackerjack stewardship of director Michael Greif, the cast of eight guides us with a gentle deftness through the story of a lonely boy who finds love and acceptance by telling a lie that guarantees the joy, too, will eventually prove flat and false.
On a third visit to “Dear Evan Hansen” — after earlier encounters, in its world premiere at Arena Stage in the summer of 2015, and then at off-Broadway’s Second Stage this past spring — the production for me has only gained in power, the unfolding of Evan’s transgression and what he eventually decides to do about it only grown more compellingly executed. Granted that this show, which also benefits from the sharp, fresh digital-world look dreamed up by set designer David Korins, projections designer Peter Nigrini and lighting designer Japhy Weidman, is definitely not in the dreamy vein of “La La Land,” the nostalgic new movie musical for which Pasek and Paul also wrote the lyrics. “Dear Evan Hansen” is a thornier vehicle and, as an adolescent suicide is a linchpin of the plot, one that rolls onto some highly sensitive terrain.
Setting such a troubling subject to music could seem like exploitation. But in actuality Levenson and the songwriters are taking a serious look here at the ways in which we as a culture exploit others’ misfortunes, a phenomenon abetted by the high-speed interventions of social media. For in “Evan Hansen,” the lie that Evan falls into accidentally, and soon begins to feed aggressively, concerning the death of a classmate he barely knew, spins out of his control as a result of its viral spread on the web. And the desire of strangers to claim some tangential share of the tragedy confirms in the playing out of Evan’s subterfuge the worst tendencies of the age of Facebook.
The delight here is that Pasek, Paul and Levenson do understand how to make this seemingly unmusical idea sing, and sing grandly. Platt carries the lion’s share of the responsibility for delivering the score’s knockout punches, in pop- and rock-infused numbers like “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever,” “You Will be Found” and “Words Fail.” But there are other rewarding moments provided by the rest of the cast, veterans of the other productions who in the Broadway incarnation have all found even more poignant connections with their characters. Rachel Bay Jones, as Evan’s single mom, is simply sensational, imbuing soft spoken Heidi Hansen with persuasive layers of maternal protectiveness, and worry, and guilt. The emotion she unleashes in the evening’s profound penultimate song, “So Big/So Small,” elevates Heidi to the level of unforgettable, too.
Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson provide touchingly accessible accounts of the parents of the dead student, Connor Murphy (the excellent Mike Faist); Park, too, has a deeply affecting moment with “To Break in a Glove,” in which his Larry Murphy and Evan, with equal awkwardness, attempt to reach out to each other. As Connor’s sister Zoe, and the object of Evan’s affections, the tender Laura Dreyfuss does beautifully, particularly in the lovely duets Pasek and Paul write for her and Platt, Act 1’s “If I Could Tell Her” and Act 2’s “Only Us.” Will Roland, playing Evan’s jerky high school ally, Jared, and Kristolyn Lloyd, as Alana, the school’s most insufferable overachiever, both display high degrees of comic aptitude.
It is, of course, Platt whom you’ll remember most vividly. That his Evan can seem to be at once both outrageously reckless and astonishingly compassionate is not only his personal triumph. It is also one of the achievements of an exemplary evening that allows you to feel that even at the core of the darkest lie, there can be sympathy for an honest-to-goodness sufferer.
Dear Evan Hansen, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Steven Levenson. Directed by Michael Greif. Music supervision and orchestrations, Alex Lacamoire; choreography, Danny Mefford; sets, David Korins; Projections, Peter Nigrini; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Japhy Weidman; sound, Nevin Steinberg; hair, David Brian Brown; casting, Tara Rubin Casting, Lindsay Levine. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets, $69-$275. At Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.