Not only does the hit Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen tweak the parameters of conventional musical theatre, it’s probably the most original, state-of-the-art show on either side of the Atlantic. Set about 250 years ahead of Hamilton, it’s also one of the very few contemporary musicals whose book, by Steven Levesnon, would work equally well as a straight-play.
As an added bonus, its eponymous hero offers newcomer Sam Tutty a breakout tidal wave of a role on which he surfs to glory.
Less impressive, however, is its generic score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose music and lyrics for the movies The Greatest Showman and La La Land were catchier.
Evan Hansen is about everything that’s good and not so good about the workings of social media in a high school environment. At the heart of the story is a nervy, nerdy, introverted teenager who, when we first meet him, is so withdrawn that just being alive is a hardship. His lack of confidence has turned into an affliction. He has no friends of either sex and eats his lunch by himself in the school’s cafeteria. The only person who cares for him is his largely absent, hard-working mother Heidi (Rebecca McKinnis), a divorcee whose husband walked out on the family when Evan was seven year’s old.
Then something happens that irrevocably changes Evan’s life and status quo. The psychiatrist his mother has arranged for him to see has suggested that each day Evan sends himself an email beginning “Dear Evan Hansen...” and should continue in a way that puts a positive spin on his day’s activities.
Unfortunately, a printout of one of these ego-boosting missives falls into the hands of Connor Murphy (Doug Colling), another dysfunctional campus loner who gleefully and mean-spiritedly pockets it. A few days later, and for no apparent reason other than that he too is friendless, Connor commits suicide. His distraught parents (Lauren Ward and Rupert Young) discover the letter and incorrectly assume that Evan Hansen, whom they have never met, must have been a good friend of their son’s to send him such a letter.
Naturally, they contact Evan, who, appreciating their desperate need for corroboration that their troubled son had at least one close friend in whom he confided, goes along with the deception. On a more personal level, Evan has a secret crush on Connor’s sister Zoe (Lucie Anderson), and sees his involvement with her family as a possible way of gaining her attention.
What he could not foresee, though, is that as soon as word gets out that he and Connor were best friends, his popularity would suddenly soar. No longer the high school nebbish, he is made co-president of an online startup called The Connor Project and becomes something of a campus hero.
The pervasiveness of social media and the overnight power of the Internet demonstrate how easy it is for hoaxes to be perceived as truth. For the first time in his life, Evan is experiencing popularity and self-esteem beyond his wildest dreams, and the dilemma he faces is whether to perpetuate the lie or fess up.
Director Michael Greif, working in a very busy set by David Korins and Peter Negrini that is dominated by rolling projections of Internet graphics, successfully camouflages the several potholes in Levenson’s book by focusing attention both on the arc of Evan’s personality change and on honing Tutty’s transformative performance.
Though, in the opening 15 minutes or so I was initially uneasy about Tutty’s pathological behaviour (to the point, almost, of mental instability). He quickly settles into the role, proving his versatility with a soaring singing voice that reaches a pleasing falsetto. I just wish that the score had a few memorable tunes and that some of the songs (such as Act Two’s "To Break in a Glove") didn’t simply exist as dialogue with some notes attached.
As was the case in the original 2016 Broadway production, all the supporting performances are excellent – most notably McKinnis as Mrs Hunter, a woman torn between being a responsible breadwinner and a caring mother. They bring maximum conviction to a serious-minded family musical whose message, that lying can sometimes be justified, might be controversial but is also pretty compelling.