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Dear Evan Hansen is a ground breaking contemporary musical which arrives from Broadway lauded with 6 Tonys and a Grammy. It’s written by Tony, Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who wrote the score for the hit movie musical The Greatest Showman and also the lyrics for La La Land and the book is by Steven Levenson who was recently Emmy nominated for Fosse/Verdon.
This young trio are at the peak of their creative powers and this show has a freshness to it which is utterly captivating. Its guitar infused pop-rock songs chime well with contemporary musical tastes and the show has been making a substantial splash in social media, connecting with both teens and parents at the same time in a way which is quite unprecedented.
It totally captures the zeitgeist of our teens, craving some real connection in our crazy hyper-connected digital world. Evan Hansen (Sam Tutty) is a troubled teen who is so bound up by depression and social unease that it presents as borderline autism. He is encouraged by his therapist to write letters to himself and the trouble starts when one of these is stolen from him by Connor (Doug Colling), a bullying schoolmate who soon afterwards kills himself. Finding the bleakly worded letter, Connor’s parents assume it was effectively a suicide note genuinely addressed to Evan and he does nothing to disabuse them. Instead, bundled along by his inarticulacy, he creates a wholly fabricated friendship with the dead boy and soon finds himself warmly embraced by Connor’s family. Another schoolmate Alana (Nicole Raquel Dennis) who is obsessed with social mobility and resume building and who, like Evan, meant nothing to Connor, encourages Evan to start a Facebook memorial tribute to the troubled boy. Very soon this ‘Connor Project’ goes viral on social media and takes on many new aspects including crowd funding. The piece is brilliant on the sea of emotional hyperbole which social media can rustle up from nowhere.
The book, which in of itself would make a fantastic play, explores how parents are coping with raising the first generation for whom the virtual world is even more important than the physical one. Evan’s Mum Heidi (Rebecca McKinnis) struggles as a single mom holding down a job and night school and is wracked with guilt about every moment spent apart from her son. Connor’s mother Cynthia (Lauren Ward) and Dad Larry (Rupert Young) desperately need to believe that that their angry inarticulate boy actually had another side to him that they were unaware of. Connor’s sister Zoe (Lucy Anderson) adds to the complexity as she hated her brother but is also the object of Evan’s affections. This complex web is completed by the cynical conniving classmate cousin Jared (Jack Loxton) who abuses Evan’s vulnerability and tries to monetise the project.
From the very first note Sam Tutty is astonishing in how he captures the many shades of the alienated teenager – the emotional constipation followed by rapid effusions of words, the nervy smiles, the gawky gestures and the emotional intelligence which can’t yet find expression. His pain cuts though you like few other characters you’ve ever experienced in a musical. The show has generated many discussions about the ethics of Evan but they miss the point that this is a subtle portrait of a multi-dimensional but very flawed young man. He misled, but they desperately wanted to hear.
The deceptively simple songs are beautifully constructed, lyrical and poetic but they also function to reveal character, to move the plot on and to change the emotional temperature - just what’s needed in a musical theatre song. Thankfully there is no clunky recitative here either.
Michael Grief’s direction is wonderfully assured throughout, aided by David Korins and Peter Nigrini’s wonderful cyclorama of digital screens which both perfectly comment on and visually express Evan’s world.
It all packs an astonishing emotional punch and deserves to be seen more than once.