There’s much to like about Dear Evan Hansen at the Noël Coward Theatre, not least a brilliant lead performance from Sam Tutty
“Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”
After seeing Dear Evan Hansen, you realise that its title can be taken two ways. It’s the salutation on a letter that precipitates a world of trouble for the awkward teenager and those around him as per Steven Levenson’s effectively contemporary book. But it also ultimately emerges as an affectionate form of address, troublingly so as the show latterly pulls its punches around some of the harder-hitting topics that it raises.
High-school senior Evan’s life is crippled by social anxiety. His hard-working single mum barely has time for him, he’s got no mates to speak of, and his therapist keeps setting him homework. Then when one of his classmates Connor Murphy dies by suicide, a chink of light unexpectedly cracks through his depression, as an unlikely chain of events leads him to claiming that they were best friends in order to emotionally support the grieving family.
As well-intentioned his efforts, Evan can’t help but let the lies get bigger and bigger as perversely, his life gets better and better. Levenson sensitively explores the seductiveness of the ready-made family life Evan finds with the Murphys, reciprocal in its benefits. And he cleverly examines the hollowness of social activism as performed on social media as a passing trend, a hashtag to follow for a week with little or no interest in whether it is real or not.
Searchingly powerful stuff in Michael Greif’s production, particularly as it is acted here by recent drama school graduate Sam Tutty, who gives Evan a thoroughly credible gangly teenage awkwardness dialled up the max with its hands screwed up tight. Rebecca McKinnis and Lauren Ward also both excel as the maternal figures in his life, each dealing with their own complex set of feelings while trying to deal with the pandora’s box of Evan’s mental health.
It’s a shame then that for all this complexity, the ending feels like a punt for dramatic neatness as it seeks to wrap everything up with a bow, undermining the seriousness of Evan’s wrongdoings and the reality of ongoing mental health conditions. Throw in the cult status already built up around this musical – upon the reveal of stalkerish behaviour at one point, I couldn’t believe the romantic coos around me – dear Evan Hansen? More like oh dear Evan Hansen!
But the instantly recognisable sound of Pasek and Paul’s score is a thrum of constant musical interest, the new graduates in the cast more than holding their own against the more experienced members. And the endlessly refreshing feed of David Korins’ set evokes much of the digital whirlwind that is whipped up by Evan’s misdeeds. A refreshingy bold piece of musical theatre, if not quite a perfect one.