Music and Lyrics: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book: Steven Levenson
Director: Michael Greif
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The musical really is a contemporary art form yet the setting and inspiration for many of the biggest hits over the past few years all seem to look to the past. In the last year alone, we’ve had the 80s-set Only Fool s and Horses, Heathers the Musical and 9 to 5 arrive in the West End, while Waitress based on the 2007 film opened around the same time. But the arrival of Dear Evan Hansen brings the genre right up to date with a story fit for an audience well versed in the complexities of the Internet and the difficulties of navigating a semi-permanent and unrelenting online presence.
Evan Hansen is an anxious 17-year old struggling to find a place and a friendship group in his typical American High School. After friendless bully Connor Murphy steals one of Evan’s therapeutic letters to self, which is later mistaken for his own suicide note, Evan is wrongly touted as Connor’s secret friend and welcomed into the Murphy family. As digital memorials spring up, Evan’s lies spin out of control as demands for revelations and insights try to keep Connor’s memory alive.
Dear Evan Hansen feels achingly modern and is full of insightful comment on our difficult relationship with social media where overall attempts to do good quickly become subsumed into the mire of opinion, speculation and pressure to feed followers with more and more revealing information. Every aspect of this show is carefully constructed around the idea of ever-present screens for a generation raised on the Internet, and characters frequently interact through their laptops, smartphones and vlog channels.
David Korins’ set is fairly minimal, with a few small rooms that slide into place to take the action from Evan’s bedroom and living room to the Murphy household, but it is Peter Nigrini’s projections that dominate, creating screen-like boxes around the characters whenever they interact online, and covering the stage with the crucial text from Evan’s letters as words remain a prime medium of communication and expression even in this significantly contemporary environment.
This is given further emphasis by the permanent scroll of tweets, messages and Instagram posts that run down the flies during the show – a quiet background technique that rapidly becomes an increasing tirade as Evan’s sanity and Connor’s memory are attacked and distorted by the frenzy of social media and the expectations of strangers.
There is plenty of feel-good escapist messaging here, riven through the songs which in spite of a plot driven by teenage suicide, the management of grief and mental health conditions, the overwhelmingly optimistic score reassures you that everything will turn out well. Drawn from modern pop music, the style of the songs feel appropriate to the age of the characters with the bouncy ‘Sincerely Me’ and the frequently reprised and hashtag worthy ‘You Will be Found’ among the most memorable.
Alternate, Marcus Harman, captures well the nervous panic of Evan Hansen swept along by a tide of public expectation and pressure he cannot contain, while the honesty of his connection to the Murphys ensures he remains sympathetic and a hero worth routing for. Making his professional debut alongside many in the cast, Harman’s vocals are full as emotion while the scenes with semi-absent mother Heidi (Rebecca McKinnis) are filled with anger and supressed rage as Harman shows Evan’s development across the show.
Doug Colling as Connor, Jack Loxton as co-conspirator Jared who helps Evan to fake a digital friendship with the deceased and Nicole Raquel Dennis as Alana Beck the self-appointed Co-President of the Connor memorial website project create lots of texture, suggesting the cynicism of the online world and the ease with which it can all be fabricated, while among the adults Rupert Young as Larry and Lauren Ward and Cynthia convey the layered grief of parents unable to come to terms with the loss of a son they barely knew
The show could cut a couple of numbers and some of the characters are so thinly drawn they don’t really deserve as much attention in the final 20-minutes as they get, but Dear Evan Hansen is irresistibly charming and really pretty smart about our duel relationship with social media. A lot of shows may be looking to the past for inspiration but Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Steven Levenson have written a show for now, and one that sets the bar higher for the future of the musical.
Booking until May 2020 | Image: Matthew Murphy