The new Evan of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ proves to be a worthy standard-bearer

Published March 7 2018
Updated March 9 2018

NEW YORK — He had me at "window."

The word crops up prominently in Dear Evan Hansen’s socko second song, the mournfully revealing Waving Through a Window. As delivered by the Tony Award-winning musical’s first long-term successor to Ben Platt, the role’s superhuman originator, the number — not to mention the actor — still binds you profoundly to a troubled high-schooler who aches for that thing all sensitive teenagers crave: being noticed.

Taylor Trensch is the affecting inheritor of Platt’s formidable mantle, and seeing how another actor might customize it to his own emotional resources drew me eagerly back to the production at the Music Box Theatre. It was my fifth visit to Dear Evan Hansen, my initial encounter having occurred in summer 2015, when the musical, under director Michael Greif’s refined guidance, was birthed at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

The plaudits-showered Platt departed in November, after a year on Broadway, and the interim Evan following him, Noah Galvin, offered a finely voiced transition for "Fansens," as the show’s army of adherents is called. Trensch, recently an exuberant Barnaby Tucker in the Bette Midler-led revival of Hello, Dolly!, is the Evan whom critics were invited back to see. It’s a pleasure to report that the show remains as potent as ever, with Trensch introducing some fascinating new shading to a character of unusual musical-theater complexity, as dreamed up by songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book writer Steven Levenson.

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It was during For Forever, though, another of Evan’s early songs (in a score featuring him in 11 of the 14 distinct numbers), that the insights Trensch brings to the character become apparent. The song cements the central misunderstanding that prompts Evan into perpetuating a terrible lie — that he was best friends with another student (Mike Faist) who has died. Evan concocts a story about their heretofore secret friendship, the details of which he conveys in For Forever to the boy’s grief-stricken parents (Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson) and angry sister (Laura Dreyfuss).

Noteworthily, Trensch’s Evan stares deeply into the eyes of one of them in particular: Thompson’s heartbroken Cynthia, and sings a lot of For Forever right to her. It’s slightly spooky, the way this Evan instinctively zeros in on her, either because he intuits that she is the one who most desperately needs consoling — or, perhaps, that she is the key to his finally finding acceptance from a world that hardly stops to recognize his existence.

That keen emotional intelligence is evident in Trensch’s bracing turn, and occasionally, his intensity gets the better of his musicianship. To sustain a fever pitch, he’s sometimes a little pitchy. His voice has the color and power, but perhaps he’s still learning to metabolize Alex Lacamoire’s vibrant orchestrations. Platt displayed in this regard a preternatural capacity for what you might call tuneful purging. He could communicate with uncanny precision the most wrenching melodic moments of Evan’s journey.

Trensch, on the other hand, conjures Evan’s fragility with his own special poignancy; the physical tics that betoken Evan’s inner disturbances feel drawn particularly sharply from the character’s own sadness-tinged reality.

Dealing with a new Evan no doubt demands adjustments from Trensch’s seven superb castmates, all the Broadway originators of their roles. It’s not surprising that living night after night in the sorrowful space that Dear Evan Hansen occupies, on the way to its consoling resolution, would make an actor ever weepier. But that’s a tendency to be resisted. I offer the friendly caution that a show is at its best when the audience sheds the bulk of the tears.