Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Dear Evan Hansen,
Today is going to be a good day and here’s why…”
After winning six Tony Awards in 2017, a West End run for Dear Evan Hansen became a highly anticipated inevitability – even more so because it’s a creation of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the minds behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman. The show grapples with teen suicide and mental health by following Evan Hansen, a lonely high-schooler with (nearly) crippling social anxiety, whose bully, Connor Murphy, kills himself. Through unfortunate coincidence, Evan is caught up in the aftermath when Murphy’s parents are convinced he was their son’s best friend. He falls into perpetuating and expanding this fabrication of friendship as he grows closer to the family, goes viral online, and his dreams start to come true. But with everything built on the world wide web of lies, can Evan handle it?
The production demands a lot from its lead: being onstage most of the time as the plot’s core means that the show, ultimately, rests on his shoulders. A musical like this does not work without an exceptional actor in that role. As Ben Platt won a Tony for his Evan Hansen, expectations for the London version have been enormous. Reviews online and from friends say that Sam Tutty more than lives up to this. On the night I visited, I had the alternate Evan, Marcus Harman. It is very difficult to believe that Dear Evan Hansen marks Harman’s professional stage debut – he is nothing short of phenomenal. I was blown away by his acting and attention to detail. Evan’s anxiety is seen throughout Harman’s whole body, with incessant fiddling, tucking his shirt in and out, the shaking of both him and his voice, and every movement perfectly sculpted the character. His spiralling thoughts are depicted with realism, but also manage to inject humour. The way in which Harman acts through the songs and pours emotion onto the stage works magic in creating sympathy for Evan. This extreme level of social awkwardness is also necessary for the plot’s plausibility, Evan cannot have an easier way out: his obvious anxiety demonstrates why he is unable to tell the truth when it all begins or as it continues. This is where Harman shines – he does not play Evan, he becomes him. It’s easy to get swallowed up when alone onstage, but Harman captures the audience’s attention and refuses to let it go.
It isn’t just the acting that’s clever – the musical’s use of projection is visually stunning. The stage has several screens dotted around that are predominantly used to show social media feeds, and these are often projected onto the stage itself, as characters stand within projected mobile phone outlines to speak their texts (you get a great view of this from the higher seats!). There’s a real sense of being plunged into technology and social networking which, at times, is used to create a claustrophobic atmosphere at the perfect moment. The projection reflects Evan’s situation, his own state of mind, almost becoming an ensemble member itself. It also serves to remind the audience of things – most notably, the words from the letter that starts it all are frequently projected across the stage, either a looming presence in the background or smothering everything in sight.
For me, projection working in tandem with the lighting hugely enhanced the impact of the songs. Particularly in ‘You Will Be Found’, this production design makes it feel like more than just eight cast members are onstage. Alongside beautiful harmonies, musical layering, and emotional acting, this is one goose bump-inducing ride. However, with a subject as dark and angst-ridden as this, some songs verge on being too similar. There’s a lot of pain from most characters within the musical, so the audience doesn’t have much chance for reprieve – ‘Sincerely, Me’ is the biggest exception to this, providing comic relief even when dealing with a morbid situation. Being ballad-heavy asks a lot of the audience, but there is a certain integrity in this rather than repeatedly shoehorning in lighter songs for the sake of it (although this does happen, to an extent, with ‘To Break in a Glove’). The soundtrack boasts some instant classics though, especially in ‘For Forever’ and ‘Waving Through a Window’, which have been stuck in my head on loop since seeing the show.
What does conflict me is the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but the nature of the plot backs Pasek and Paul into a very difficult corner – how do you resolve this? An upbeat, romantic conclusion is out of the question. Throughout most of the play, you don’t want Evan to end up with the girl he wants, not when it’s Zoe Murphy, to whom he’s been lying about her brother. Their relationship makes the second act relatively uncomfortable: insight into the situation creates an unsettling undertone, and as much as you want him to be happy, you can’t accept this while knowing what you do. Therefore, a ‘sunshine and rainbows’ ending would be tone deaf, one which the show thankfully avoids. It could take a much darker turn than it does, perhaps more appropriate than the actual ending (which feels a little like a deflating balloon). However, I do think that the hope offered by the ending is extremely important, and Dear Evan Hansen proves itself to be an immensely powerful show that warrants a visit… or several!