NEW YORK — A good musical need only be good the first time you see it. An excellent one must remain excellent through many visits and incarnations.
By that standard, “Dear Evan Hansen,” which won six Tony Awards in 2017, is both good and excellent. Halfway through its third year at the Music Box Theater on Broadway, with just two of its original cast members still on board, it keeps revealing new charm, new sadness, new truth.
New talent, too: Four of the actors now playing its five teenage characters are making Broadway debuts; two of them are actual teenagers. Though this changes the weight and balance of the story, making it more hopeful while tipping its center of gravity toward the parents, “Dear Evan Hansen” works beautifully regardless.
The most significant change comes with the recasting of Evan himself, a role that requires ridiculous emotional and physical stamina. Following in the tortured footsteps of Ben Platt, Noah Galvin and Taylor Trensch is Andrew Barth Feldman, who at 17 is the youngest Evan yet. When he took over the role, in January, he was even younger than the character.
You might think there would be an artistic (or legal) minimum age at which an actor could perform the role. Evan’s social anxiety is not the cute awkwardness of a nerdy high school senior; it must be extreme enough to lead him, through a combination of despair and a desire to please, into the dystopia of lies that kick-starts the plot.
That plot — the book is by Steven Levenson — seems more and more ingenious with each viewing, consistently yanking its characters into conflict as it unfolds with a fearsome logic. When his daily affirmation letter is found in the pocket of a boy who commits suicide, Evan is befriended by the mourning parents and their daughter, Zoe, whom Evan has long had a crush on. Schoolmates who once ignored or taunted him now see him as special, and as his new identity attracts the hungry eye of social media, he becomes alienated from Heidi, his overworked mother.
Though young performers today are regularly pushed well beyond cuteness and comedy — Feldman won the 2018 National High School Musical Theater Award for playing the sociopathic Frank Abagnale Jr. in Lawrence Woodmere Academy’s production of “Catch Me If You Can” — they are rarely asked to sing their way through what amounts to a psychiatric case study. How could a sane teenager acquire the necessary distance to process Evan’s troubles and the skill to enact them safely onstage?
I don’t know the answer; I only hope that Feldman’s success comes not from familiarity with deep unhappiness but from empathy, observation and mimicry. Though his Evan is no carbon copy of his predecessors in the role, he shares many pathetic mannerisms with them: the twitchy picking at himself, the cul-de-sac speech patterns, the upturned, outstretched, suppliant right hand.
Still, for much of the musical, the impression he leaves is lighter and funnier, no doubt because he’s visibly not an adult. You believe there’s time for this Evan to repair himself.
If there is something newly innocent, too, in his lovely scenes with Mallory Bechtel as Zoe — Bechtel is 19 — the relative lightness of their youthful interactions makes the adult ones that much darker. As played by Lisa Brescia, Heidi is panicked and armored from the start, giving you a glimpse into the motivation behind Evan’s evasiveness. Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park, original cast members, keep deepening their performances as the grieving parents, suggesting the ruin of their relationship even before tragedy hit.
It speaks not only to the writing but also to director Michael Greif’s careful maintenance of the production that the story remains so rich no matter which way you slice it. There’s not much room for showboating or sloppiness in “Dear Evan Hansen,” and it might be emblematic of the show’s discipline that its projection technology has also been upgraded recently. (Peter Nigrini’s montages of social media, now even sharper, faster and more overwhelming, function almost as the story’s chorus.)
The music remains piercingly sharp as well. Though Feldman is still learning to negotiate the frequent changes of register that the songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, require, he delivers them with great precision and passion. At many moments he surprised me, despite my repeat viewings, with new melismas and spins on lyrics that sharpened the story to a slightly different point.
But if the overall experience of “Dear Evan Hansen” continues to move in the direction of its adults — after all, it’s Heidi who gets the best song — that’s fine with me and fine for the show. Many in the audience are adults. And soon enough, the show’s first fans (and even this Evan) will be, too.
“Dear Evan Hansen”: At the Music Box Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, dearevanhansen.com. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.