Unending horror! Dear Evan Hansen premieres in London after earning a rapturous reception and six Tony awards since its opening in 2016 on Broadway, and its narrative blindsides me with its deeply unsettling potential. The ride the musical takes you on is at once earnest, funny, and horrific – and though there isn’t time devoted to the full implications of Evan’s actions, the darkness of the subject matter is a welcome surprise.
Evan Hansen (Sam Tutty) is a loser. He doesn’t have friends, nor much of a family, either – his mum, Heidi (Rebecca McKinnis) is out working constantly to support them. He’s a ball of anxiety and uncertainty. He can’t tell his crush, Zoe Murphy (Lucy Anderson) how he feels about her, and his broken arm’s cast goes unsigned. Until it doesn’t.
The suicide of the only person to sign his cast, Connor Murphy (Doug Colling), Zoe’s brother, sweeps Evan up into the Murphy’s family’s grief, and a school-wide, then nation-wide lie. The lie is that he and Connor were friends. Best friends. This lie is based on a letter to Evan found in Connor’s possession, assumed to be from Connor, in fact the result of an exercise recommended by Evan’s therapist: to write a letter to himself about why each day is going to be a good one.
Tutty turns in a great performance as Evan, blinking the sweat out of his eyes, picking at his clothes, and as his mother, McKinnis’ Heidi is wonderful. She’s tired, concerned but proud, rightfully suspicious of the Murphy family’s sudden hailing of her son as practically their own. The show is particularly sharp on the class difference between the Murphys and the Hansens, as well as the often excruciating awkwardness of its teen characters.
In David Korins’ scenic design, there are small movable islands of furniture and large screens that shift around the characters like open internet tabs. Onto these, projections (designed by Peter Nigrini) display tweets, Facebook messages, Spotify, and later the progress of the largest fruit of Evan’s lie, the memorial initiative The Connor Project. The design feels anonymous in a way that underscores the characters’ alienation: they’re effectively swimming amongst all these screens, walking through them with brisk purpose, trying to find each other.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music has that ‘This could be the day where everything changes for you!’ acoustic sound, with lots of bright guitar chords, soft piano, and smooth, folky strings. Apart from the slightly irresistible ‘Waving Through A Window’, the songs embarrass me a little with the way they lay it all out in that kind of big, guileless, all-American way (‘Disappear’, ‘You Will Be Found’, ‘So Big / So Small’). As things go wrong for Evan, the spikier ‘Good For You’ is reminiscent of sassy early John Mayer, and is a lot of fun, particularly for McKinnis.
Danny Mefford’s always-naturalistic choreography has its peak in the gleeful ‘Sincerely, Me’, as Evan and Evan’s sort-of friend Jared (a Richie Tozier type played by Jack Loxton) fabricate emails between Evan and Connor to hold up his lie. It’s a ‘Come to the Fun Home’ type of number, with Connor onstage, magnifying Evan’s nervous gestures as he dictates to Jared, then becoming a handshake-based dance between the three of them. The Connor we see is largely exactly this – a kind of puppet, an imagined thing animated by Evan – so it fits that this dance is very slightly eerie. What Evan and Jared are doing, while being funny, is macabre in the extreme!
Then there’s ‘Requiem’, a lovely song uniting the surviving members of the Murphy family, which makes apparent a persistent problem with Zoe’s character. We see so little of Connor pre-death, and we’re told he was relentlessly aggressive towards Zoe, which leaves her confused as to why she’s mentioned prominently in his “suicide note”. When she sings the words;
“So, don’t tell me that I didn’t have it right
Don’t tell me that it wasn’t black and white
After all you put me through
Don’t say it wasn’t true
That you were not the monster
That I knew”
about her brother, the closure she seems to have found by the end feels too easily reached. It doesn’t undo how significant and powerful this song sounds for Zoe. It’s also hard to feel invested in Evan and Zoe’s budding relationship, as he courts her with made-up memories of her brother actually caring about her, dressing up his own feelings as if from Connor. The musical seems to want us to just go with these two lonely people finding each other, but this creepiness might be too much for some.
Though Steven Levenson’s writing is sweet and smart, other characters remain barely sketched besides Evan and Heidi. We know little about Zoe, and Evan’s fellow losers-in-crime Jared and Alana Beck (Nicole Raquel Dennis, in a completely charming performance) could have done with more rounding out. It’s Alana’s action at the climax of the show which accidentally pushes everything to breaking point, but we’re not given much of her at all. She might be just better drawn than Connor, however, the dead teenager at the heart of this story who somehow remains unknown to us throughout.
But then, it’s not their stories, in the end: it’s Evan’s. And it’s a ludicrous, horrific, silly, purposefully cringe-inducing, forcefully heartstring-pulling one, but for all it can be criticised, it’s very easy to love.
Dear Evan Hansen is on at Noel Coward Theatre until 2nd May 2020. More info and tickets here.