Ben Platt and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Michael Greif, at the Music Box Theatre.
Ben Platt and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Michael Greif, at the Music Box Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

From start to finish of Dear Evan Hansen, the young actor Ben Platt is stripped down to his emotional skivvies for us voyeurs to judge, gawk at, and most disquieting of all — pity. His breathtaking performance in the show's title role is just one of the reasons Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson's new musical moves audiences to their feet before the lights even come down.

Directed by Michael Greif — a tested veteran of Broadway's angstiest coming-of-age musicals (most famously Rent and Next to Normal) — Dear Evan Hansen fits neatly into his repertoire with a tale of lonely and misunderstood teenagers. Before you change the channel, rest assured Dear Evan Hansen is not a story about or for solipsistic millennials. It does, however, require access to your more guarded heartstrings — but the good news is it earns every note of emotion it draws from them.

The story (penned by Levenson with sincerity and humor) boils down to a misunderstanding spun wildly out of control. Evan Hansen, a lonely high schooler who may fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, has been asked by his therapist to write himself a self-affirming letter that begins:

Dear Evan Hansen,

Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why.

As the first day of his senior year draws to a close, Evan finds it to be just like any other with no one to talk to, no one to sign his arm cast (the product of a mysterious fall from a tree), and no hope of ever mustering the courage to talk to his hopeless crush, Zoe Murphy (sung beautifully and acted with a light touch by Laura Dreyfuss).

The letter Evan ends up writing reflects those bleak feelings, and, to add insult to injury, it lands in the hands of Zoe's emotionally disturbed brother, Connor (a disheveled Mike Faist faithfully playing the part of a paranoid high school burnout). When Connor tragically takes his life the next day, his parents (Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson) find him with Evan's letter, thinking it's a suicide note left behind for their son's best friend. From there, Evan becomes an unconventional addition to the Murphy family, comforting them with falsified memories and e-mail exchanges concocted by Jared (a delightfully sardonic Will Roland), a tech nerd whose parents bribe him with car insurance to be nice to his awkward "family friend." Evan's résumé-obsessed classmate Alana (played with amusing faux-sentimentality by Kristolyn Lloyd) jumps onboard the Connor bandwagon, as well, teaming up with Evan to start an online revolution in the dead teen's memory.

It's not wrong to be wary when social media takes a prominent place in a modern musical — like a flashing neon sign that reads, "Come all ye young people!" But Dear Evan Hansen doesn't just pander to the Snapchatters of the world (though they're sure to be impressed by Peter Nigrini's elaborate projections paired with Japhy Weideman's dramatic lighting design). This musical offers a truly 21st-century story, illustrating how easy it is to find friends in the face of loneliness, and yet how lonely it's possible to be in a world swarming with "friends" (a paradox captured in David Korins' dark, gaping set that swallows its inhabitants whole).

Pasek and Paul's score has remained blissfully untouched following the show's off-Broadway run at Second Stage Theatre (the follow-up to its world premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.). Better than most other composing teams taking up today's Broadway stages, they strike a balance between substance and popular appeal with memorable melodies and character-driven lyrics that you'll find yourself singing days later. Evan's opening solo number, "Waving Through a Window," is likely to become Broadway's newest anthem, though it's hard to imagine anyone topping Platt's powerful rendition. "For Forever" is another standout, as is "Only Us," performed by Platt and Dreyfuss as their characters develop an unlikely but ultimately convincing romance.

Rachel Bay Jones (an underappreciated gem of the musical theater) also delivers a knockout performance as Evan's single working mother, Heidi. Her song of maternal compassion, "So Big/So Small," delivered in Act II, is one of the show's most tender moments, while Park also shares a sweet and pseudo-parental scene with Evan during the song "To Break in a Glove."

The way the show fills the Music Box Theatre, you almost forget Dear Evan Hansen boasts a cast of only seven — possibly the smallest musical company we'll see all season, but potentially one that will make the greatest sound. Here's hoping plenty of people are around to hear the crack of its tree in the Broadway forest.