Theatre Reviews

“Words Fail” – Dear Evan Hansen is sublime

The original musical, with music by The Greatest Showman writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, finally makes its long-anticipated transfer to the West End

Dear Evan Hansen

Starring Sam Tutty, Lucy Anderson, Rebecca McKinnis, Lauren Ward, Doug Colling, Rupert Young, Jack Loxton, Nicole Raquel Dennis and Marcus Harman

It’s been 3 years since Dear Evan Hansen opened on Broadway, and subsequently bagged 6 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score. Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of socially-awkward anxiety-ridden teen Evan Hansen (Sam Tutty), who discovers an opportunity for acceptance when fellow teen Connor Murphy (Doug Colling) commits suicide and his parents (Lauren Ward and Rupert Young) assume that they were best friends.

The entire performance is tinged with a sense of hysteria and panic, which is only enhanced by the continual social-media based projections that adorn the set. Designed by David Korins (Scenic Designer), Peter Nigrini (Projection Designer) and Japhy Weideman, the team achieved the unenviable task of bringing the Internet to the stage. The stage itself is by its very nature dark. The floor is black, as our the discs upon which set pieces, such as dining tables, beds and sofas float onto stage. Its a seemingly empty void, in which our characters inhabit it. Accompanying this are rectangular strips upon which projections indicate social media reactions, from Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. It seems to be a commentary upon how isolating the world of social media is, such that our characters are actually physically alone, while this world buzzes around them. The Internet world around them, however, does not illuminate them with light, but rather is separate to them, still serving to keep them isolated and alone. At the beginning of the musical, this is seen with Evan looking around him at the lives of the other teenagers in his life, who seem to be having a much happier existence than he. Ultimately, Evan begins to be included with this: there is a direct symmetry between Waving Through a Window and You Will Be Found, both in the reversal of the social media output, as well as of the choreography. The set design, with the lighting and the projections, serve to illustrate how alone our characters are in this world, despite the capability of being able to connect outside of it. The entire musical, except for the final scene, in which we are treated to some actual light, is based indoors, a fact that was completely lost on me until seeing the final scene. Through Evan’s rehabilitation, there’s a sense of dragging himself away from the quagmire that is social media. For the entire musical, there exists this idea that life is floating in the darkness of a technological void.

The storyline of Dear Evan Hansen soon becomes a freight train, spinning out of control, with Evan desperate to control it before it all unravels. The success of the musical relies upon us sympathising and caring about Evan as a character. This, in part, comes from how he is written. Early on in the musical, Waving Through a Window shows us what Evan wants. He feels detached and removed from everybody around him. When he approaches others, they instantly turn their back and shut him out while he desperately longs to be seen. It is therefore understandable that Evan leans into the lie that he and Connor Murphy were friends considering the attention that he is getting from Cynthia and Larry Murphy as they grieve. It is certainly more attention than he is getting from his own mother, Heidi (Rebecca McKinnis), who works long hours in addition to attending law school. This chaotic energy is also depicted within the social media reports as Evan’s story unfolds, becoming steadily and steadily more exaggerated and fanatical – as Twitter tends to do.

The other burden of making Evan likeable rests upon the shoulders of our leading man. Ordinarily Sam Tutty, Evan is also played by Marcus Harman, who is the West End alternate. In the performance I witnessed, Harman was inhabiting the role and did so phenomenally. His acting was practically pulsating with nervous energy, in a way that did not feel ingenuine, but rather incredibly truthful. It was like he was a conduit to an entirely different world of experience. His body language was reserved, and the delivery of the songs was so natural it never really felt like he was singing, rather imparting his hidden truths.

In fact, the entire cast is sublime. Nicole Raquel Dennis and Jack Loxton are both hilarious in their respective roles, as characters who are more similar to Evan than they initially appear. Lucy Anderson is stellar as Zoe Murphy, who initially appears as reserved and acerbic in the wake of her brother’s death, before becoming more open and relaxed around Evan. The adults, too, are delightful. Rupert Young as the stoic Larry Murphy takes Evan under his wing, though the true show-stopping moments come from the two mothers. Cynthia Murphy’s complicated feelings over Connor’s death become transferred to Evan, while Rebecca McKinnis treats us to two breathtaking Act 2 solos, demonstrating her anger towards Evan for her not being enough, to then her communicating to him how she is always there for him.

Overall, Dear Evan Hansen is quite an uncomfortable view, but intentionally so. Every scene seems to percolate with a sense of unease that pretty soon Evan will misstep and his entire world will come crumbling down around him. While you simultaneously root for Evan, you also fear for him as what he has created becomes more and more intense and it becomes harder for him to withdraw from the fiction he has constructed. In the theatre, you could almost sense an entire auditorium holding its breath in anticipation.

This brilliant, dramatic and nuanced piece, written by Steven Levenson, is peppered with poppy, driving musical pieces by Pasek and Paul, which serve as our deep insights into our characters. No song is wasted here, even if the tone of the pieces are sometimes at odds with the mood of the rest of the piece. If one criticism could be levied at the soundtrack, which is tonally quite consistent and highly moving, is that the musical does suffer from an awful lot of angsty teen ballads, which, to an outsider, might make it a bit samey. Personally, I adore the soundtrack, but I can understand the tonal similarities that might be noted.

So is Dear Evan Hansen worth seeing? Absolutely. It is entirely remarkable, and unique. No musical production picks up 6 Tony Awards by accident. Every detail of this piece is meticulously planned, from the stunning and awe-inspiring choreography, to the slick direction, to the unnerving aesthetic and dedicated, emotive performances. Nothing has been left to chance here, so this musical should definitely be on your bucket list.

Dear Evan Hansen is currently showing that the Noel Coward Theatre, and is booking until 30th May 2020.

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