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A peerless ‘Evan Hansen’ and ingenious ‘Sunday’ dazzle on B’way

Ben Platt (seen here with Rachel Bay Jones, as his mother), received the Tony Award for best leading actor in a musical Sunday night for his performance in "Dear Evan Hansen." (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

This season’s Tony Award nominations will be announced on May 2, and unquestionably there will be a battle royal among the women in the category of best leading actress in a musical, with Bette Midler, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole all good bets to be contenders. (Glenn Close is out of eligibility having won for her role in “Sunset Boulevard” in a previous edition of the show.)

But, if life (or at least show biz) is fair, there can be only one winner in the category of leading actor in a musical, and he is Ben Platt, the 23-year-old star of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Platt is already familiar to Chicago audiences who caught his performance in the 2012 Chicago production of “The Book of Mormon” in which he easily stole the show as the nerdy but endearing Elder Cunningham. Now, as Evan Hansen — a role he originated — he gives a performance of such brilliance and soul-bearing intensity that you have to wonder how he ever makes it through an eight-show-per week schedule. And you cannot help but wonder what roles he will play as he begins to lose his boyish vulnerability.

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Platt might have been up against Jake Gyllenhaal, who stars opposite Annaleigh Ashford in a most engaging revival of “Sunday in the Park with George,” the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical inspired by the French post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, whose masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” is among the most prized works in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. But “Sunday,” which has a limited run, took itself out of Tony eligibility altogether, so neither Gyllenhaal nor Ashford will be in the running.

On a recent trip to New York to see Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet perform at Lincoln Center, I caught up with both musicals — just a tiny sampling of the many exceptional (and often star-studded) offerings on stage during this busy spring season on Broadway. I chose to see “Evan Hansen” because I was so impressed by Platt in Chicago, and because the show seems like a natural for an eventual national touring company production that might stop here. And the lure of “Sunday in the Park,” a musical of extraordinary beauty and depth, has such an important connection to this city.

With a book by Steven Levenson, a score of great intensity (and exceptionally fine lyrics) by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and direction by Michael Greif (of “Rent” fame), “Dear Evan Hansen,” playing at The Music Box Theatre, was crafted with Platt in mind, and it fits him like a glove. And while he has played the endearing nerd before — both in “Mormon” and the hit film “Pitch Perfect” and its sequel — this role is far more complex, layered and demanding. And the actor’s intelligence, vulnerability and bravura acting and singing skills combine to thrilling effect — from his first big number, “Waving Through a Window,” the manic self-analysis of an insecure, anxiety-ridden guy starting his senior year in high school, to the second act’s “Words Fail,” a near breakdown/confessional that could easily be called an aria.

The story (much of which unfolds against a backdrop of text messages expertly rendered by projection designer Peter Nigrini), has its contrivances, but every member of the cast brings such conviction to it all that you easily can forget that. Evan, who has a devoted but over-scheduled divorced mom, Heidi (a strong portrayal by Rachel Bay Jones, in a role that would fit Chicago actress Susie McMonagle ideally), who works by day and goes to school at night, is painfully aware that he is a social outcast. And he senses that his passion for Zoe Murphy (Laura Dreyfuss), the daughter of wealthy parents, will forever be beyond hopeless. Zoe’s life is tormented, too, because her angry, punked-out brother, Connor (the perfectly cast Mike Faist), sucks up all the attention of the siblings’ parents (played by Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson).

When Connor commits suicide, a letter Evan has written to himself as part of his therapy becomes misconstrued as a note penned by Connor that suggests the two were secret friends. And Evan is drawn into a crazy spiral of lies and unexpected celebrity that both opens him up in unexpected ways and threatens to destroy him. Platt’s suggestion of being caught in the vortex of it all is nothing less than volcanic and riveting.

For tickets visit www.DearEvanHansen.com.

Mike Faist (left) plays Connor and Ben Platt plays the title character in the Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Mike Faist (left) plays Connor and Ben Platt plays the title character in the Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

“Sunday in the Park with George,” directed by Sarna Lapine (the niece of James Lapine, who directed the original Broadway production) is playing a limited engagement through April 23 at the unusually intimate, beautifully restored Hudson Theatre. The musical hardly needs an introduction. At once magical and moving, this classic is simply unlike anything else in the Broadway canon.

The show’s first act spins the troubled love affair between the brainy, obsessive, groundbreaking 19th century painter, George (Gyllenhaal, whose fine singing voice is the talk of the town), and his pretty but modestly educated model-mistress, Dot (the beguiling Ashford), who can never elicit the kind of attention and emotional connection from him that she craves. Throughout we watch George sketch the people who ultimately will be immortalized in his painting, with the climactic scene (not quite as thrilling as I’ve seen it done in other productions), staged so that all the characters take their place as they are envisioned on Seurat’s canvas. By this time, Dot, who is pregnant with George’s child, has married Louis, the warm and spirited baker, and moved with him to Charleston, South Carolina.

Annaleigh Ashford plays Dot and Jake Gyllenhaal plays George in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Annaleigh Ashford plays Dot and Jake Gyllenhaal plays George in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

It is in this production’s second act, set at the Art Institute (several decades later than 1984, as it is in the original, as suggested by the taking of selfies) when the real innovation occurs, with the greatest credit belonging to lighting designer Ken Billington.

This latter-day George (Gyllenhaal), is a contemporary installation artist who works with light, and he is joined for a celebration of his latest work, a Chromalume, by his nonagenarian grandmother, Marie (in an especially superb and moving turn by Ashford), the child of Seurat and Dot. For the first time in memory the realization of the Chromolume works true magic as scores of multi-colored LED bulbs descend over the audience and are manipulated into place to form a true canvas of light that brilliantly echoes Seurat’s pointillist technique. Stunning.

For tickets visit www.thehudsonbroadway.com.