Review: “Dear Evan Hansen” at Arena Stage

I just finished my first week living in D.C., and I’m writing about theatre not politics. I originally planned to write about neither, but I can’t stop thinking about the musical I saw last night.

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“Dear Evan Hansen,” is a new musical about an anxious outcast named Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, of Pitch Perfect fame) who after years of feeling out of place gets everything he wants.

That is, of course, with one big catch. He has to keep up the lie that a letter he wrote to himself for a therapy exercise was actually written by someone else as a suicide note.

As often happens with little white lies, this single act sends Evan on a tight-rope act of telling bigger and bigger lies in hopes of keeping the life – and the girl – he always dreamed of.

What could easily be a cliche plot of “teenager becomes cool, realizes it’s not that great,” breaks genre norms by incorporating modern themes. It’s not just a love story, but an exploration of grief in the internet age and how technology both helps and hinders our ability to connect to one another.

Ben Platt’s performance is both heartbreaking and relatable, as Evan Hansen reminds us all too well that the thing keeping us on the outside is sometimes only what exists inside our own heads. And his powerful musical performances answer any questions about why at 21 he’s already becoming a familiar name in theatre.

Catering to an audience where dark humor has become the norm, “Dear Evan Hansen” balances out a storyline anchored by tragedy with the self-effacing humor of the protagonist as well as cringeworthy encounters with classmates that will make you wince as you remember your own high school days.

With music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Broadway’s “A Christmas Story” and NBC’s “Smash”), the songs teeter between mainstream pop and traditional showtune. Pasek and Paul craft tunes that will stick in your head for days (“Waving Through A WIndow,” “For Forever”), but more serious numbers tend to drag (“Requiem”).

The story itself, with a book by Steve Levenson, seems a shade unbelievable and requires a due amount of suspension of disbelief. That said, there is no lack of heart or appeal in the story. Ben Platt, who mastered the role of the socially awkward but lovable sidekick in “Pitch Perfect,” brings extra depth in his performance to make that character a leading role.

If you’re looking for a feel-good musical where the plot ends wrapped up in nice little bow, look elsewhere. Instead “Dear Evan Hansen” ends like real life: somewhere in-between.

If you get the chance to see “Dear Evan Hansen” before it ends its run at Arena Stage, I highly recommend it. And if you don’t? With Michael Greif (“Next to Normal,” which also ran at Center Stage) at the helm, a Broadway transfer seems likely.

At Arena Stage until August 23.

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