by Lynn on April 22, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Seven Levenson

Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Directed by Michael Greif

Scenic design by David Korins

Projections by Peter Nigrini

Costumes by Emily Rebholz

Lighting by Japhy Weideman

Sound by Nevin Steinberg

Cast: Evan Biuliung

Allessandro Costantini

Shakura Dickson

Dean Patrick Dolan

Robert Markus

Claire Rankin

Jessica Sherman

Dear Evan Hansen is an envelope-pushing musical for the 21st century about teenage depression, coping and the people it affects. The production is terrific.

 The Story. Evan Hansen is a 17 year old teen who is suffering from depression and anxiety. His single mother Heidi does the best she can in trying to emotionally support him, encouraging him with choices and championing him when he does well.  His therapist recommends he write himself a letter, hence “Dear Evan Hansen”, telling himself that it’s a good day and why. He reluctantly writes the letter but instead it details how depressed he is except for his warm feelings for a girl named Zoe.

Connor Murphy, another misfit, finds the letter in the copy machine at school and sounds Evan out about the reference to Zoe. Zoe is Connor’s sister and he doesn’t take too kindly to Evan writing about her. Connor takes the letter and disappears. He is found three days later with the letter. Connor has killed himself and his parents believe that Evan’s letter was really Connor’s suicide note to Evan. The parents didn’t know Connor had a friend. Evan is so consumed with doubt he can’t bring himself to tell them the truth. The lie spirals out of control. We learn all this in the first 10 minutes so there are no spoiler alerts.

 The Production. Director Michael Greif has envisioned this musical in the world of computer games and endlessly changing technology. His production captures the incredible speed in which information is shot into the world, even before it can be corrected should it be incorrect, and that is often.

As we file into the theatre, we are met with David Korins’ set of  banks of computer screen projections on stage blinking, blipping, pinging, with all manner of sound effects accompanying each change of a screen. The information is bombarded out to us at a dazzling speed.

When the show begins the projections of the computer screens disappear and a rather spare set appears.  The set pieces are minimal. Stage right, Evan Hansen (a remarkable Robert Markus) sits on his bed his computer is open in front of him. He wears a cast on his right arm. While Evan would like nothing better than to stay in his room all day, his mother Heidi (Jessica Sherman) urges him to write the letter that his therapist suggested. As Evan, Robert Marcus is lethargic when talking to his mother, keeping dialogue to a minimum, (“ok”), barely rousing himself to any occasion and obviously suffering from whatever is keeping him in that room.

It’s Heidi Hansen (Evan’s mother) who has the first song, “Anybody Have a Map” that expresses the attitude and urgency for everybody in that show. It’s not only Evan Hansen who is lost, it’s his mother who is at a loss to communicate with him; it’s Connor Murphy who finds solace from his loneliness in drugs and attitude; it’s Connor’s parents who take to criticizing him when he is morose and later who are consumed with guilt about it when he kills himself.

Evan then expresses his desperation in “Waving Through a Window”. It’s impassioned, heartfelt and so telling. The music of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul has a throbbing, driving pulse to it. The music is snappy, almost like pop, but that’s the audience they are mainly writing about, so the music should be familiar to the target audience and their parents. The lyrics pointedly express what loneliness its characters are experiencing—Evan is outside looking inside, tapping on the glass to be noticed. It’s an image with which we can all identify. We can also identify with the desperation of the parents trying to communicate with their uncommunicative, troubled children.

Steven Levenson’s book captures that sense of depression, loss and isolation. He also captures the speed with which decisions are made without thinking and the lack of conscience when a mistake is ignored. A school friend of Evan’s sends out information about Connor in order to create a memorial for him without asking or checking with Evan. The information is incorrect and the person who sent it is not troubled by that. Another friend of Evan’s creates made up e-mails as if they were sent by Evan to Connor and back from Connor to Evan, promoting the lie that they were friends, again without a care about the fact it was not true.

We live in troubling times, when misinformation and fake news is shot into the air without thought of the consequences. Dear Evan Hansen captures that world to a ‘t’.

Director Michael Greif creates the momentum in which Evan’s world is unraveling. The staging is quick. As Evan, Robert Markus has that deer-in-headlights-look, fearful, unable to decide what to do or where to run. And he sings with a strong, pure voice that captures the ache of the music. He is such a compelling actor and he hits right to the heart. Also hitting the heart is Jessica Sherman as Heidi, Evan’s mother. Her pain is of a different type. Her lost kid has shut her out and she keeps ‘tap, tap, tapping’ to break through his isolation and help him. In her own way she too is outside looking in. As Connor, Sean Patrick Dolan has the swagger and careless attitude of a person who has run out of options. Dolan captures Connor’s arrogance and also his need to belong. Evan Buliung as Larry Murphy, Connor’s father is quick with a snide remark because that’s the only way of dealing with his frustration in not being able to reach his son. It’s a valid attitude, different from Heidi Hansen, but still believable as a parent who feels inadequate. Alessandro Costantini plays Jared, the young man who makes up the e-mails. Costantini is so charming, so impish that it’s very easy to be beguiled by him, and that’s frightening. The character has no moral centre, does not care about that, and yet we are amused by him. Lovely performance of a scary character.

Comment.  The musical is the most popular form of theatre, not only for light entertainment, but also for dealing with heavy subjects perhaps more successfully than a straight play. For example: Carousel (a woman loves a man who hits her in frustration), Cabaret (the coming of the Nazis to Germany and how people in the Cabaret ignore it), anything by Stephen Sondheim, Fun Home (coming out to ones parents and finding out ones father is gay and he’s still in the closet with disastrous results. And now Dear Evan Hansen about teenage depression and how it affects everybody.

Along with Fun Home and the upcoming Next to Normal that deals with adult depression etc. Dear Evan Hansen pushes the envelope of the musical form to deal with tough, daring subjects.

Dear Evan Hansen is one of a growing list of the new face of musicals—tough, unapologetic, perceptive and true. Loved it.

Mirvish Productions presents:

Opened: March 28, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 29, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Patrick April 25, 2019 at 11:44 am

Hi there,
I love your reviews, look forward to them and usually agree with your insights after I have seen the show.
Except this one. I found the music repetitive, the staging boring (that techie stuff has been done before in more effective ways), but mostly I didn’t believe Evan as a youth with anxiety
I also feel it doesn’t actually handle teen suicide in any way that adds to the dialogue. In fact, when Evan reveals he didn’t actually fall from the tree but dropped it was almost entirely passed over. I also found his two friends to be most annoying and unsympathetic.

We’re going to disagree on this one, but that’s what makes the world interesting. I can’t wait to read your next review!