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Dear Evan Hansen review – the hit musical makes for a mystifying movie

Does the musical work as a movie?

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Ben Platt as Evan Hansen
© 2021 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Dear Evan Hansen, the runaway Tony-winning hit that has wowed on both sides of the Atlantic, is a strange and unique stage musical.

It's got two, in some ways axiomatically conflicting, issues at its heart: the first is the perpetuation and adoption of lies and false narratives (exacerbated by the internet and social media), while the second is a near-forensic examination of mental health in the young, as well as how generations handle their own sense of self while awash with grief. Unfounded lies and communal solidarity, coiling and intermingling across a two-hour spectacle.

Which is, throwing the thesaurus aside, a long way of saying there's a lot going on. On stage, most of these topics are carried along by the epic, rousing numbers: you can put the anxiety away and latch onto the optimism and solidarity that are at the heart of earworms like "You Will Be Found", delivered by a cast of stage pros. But on film, does that still hold up?

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) and Jared Kalwani (Nik Dodani)
© 2021 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

It's worth, in this often rather all-consuming theatre bubble, trying to imagine what the everyday Joe on the street will make of the silver screen adaptation, directed by Perks of Being A Wallflower's Stephen Chbosky. Clocking in at over two hours (somehow cutting four numbers, almost all performed by the adult characters, makes this movie just about longer than the stage show), it feels as though you get a fair few Perks added in for good measure. It's in serious need of a trim, for sure, but there might be enough to give it heft.

The story is meaty: a young, reclusive kid – Evan (Ben Platt) – blunders his way into a misunderstanding regarding the tragic death of a troubled classmate, Connor Murphy. Evan, an occasionally endearing loner desperate for connection, states he was friends with the dead boy and proceeds to fake a raft of emails to win the hearts of Murphy's grieving family. Finally, they sigh with relief, proof that Connor wasn't a compassionless arsehole.

Everything snowballs from there – Evan's lies begin to strain credulity, while those at his high school latch onto Connor's story to inspire a nationwide message of hope. No one deserves to be forgotten, you will be found, they espouse. Hashtags pre-prepared for the social media age, chanted by an online chorus. It's a longwinded premise that, eventually, crumbles into an awkward, unpleasant melange of melancholy and pain.

Sometimes, amidst the desaturated earthiness that he used in Wallflower, Chbosky gets it all to work. The film format definitely bolsters aspects that were absent in the stage show: you get a real sense of the hubbub and coarse edge to Evan's school (something that isn't really possible with a cast of eight in a theatre), while the living, breathing, pinging, notifying immediacy of social media feels pressing.

"Sincerely Me", where Evan and his friend Jared (a perfect comedy foil in form of Jared Kalwani (Nik Dodani) pen a series of made-up emails from Connor, is a delicious send-up of Golden Age Hollywood, using quintessential choreography to show how chipper tunes can put a positive sheen on what is essentially deplorable deceit. It's a similar trick to the one pulled in the sturdy Schmigadoon!, released earlier this summer.

It's worth stressing that Steven Levenson, book writer and returning here to pen the screenplay, doesn't phone it in by any means – using the transition to the screen to re-work the ending in a relatively successful way and flesh out a variety of side characters – especially Connor, who no longer feels like an inert fulcrum for the plot. Though conceptually flawed conclusion, perhaps, the new ending does give emerging star Colton Ryan (Murphy) the chance to showcase some wonderful vocals.

Show composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul add two new numbers (one, "The Anonymous Ones", sung and co-penned by Amandla Stenberg as Evan's classmate and high school president Alana, being another, though slightly tangential, high point in the show), both sitting neatly among many fan favourites. "What are you on?", Alana asks Evan – sometimes confessing to being on medication for mental illness isn't a bitter pill to swallow.

Cynthia Murphy (Amy Adams) and Larry Mora (Danny Pino)
© 2021 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

There are misfires: some moments, like the rousing "You Will Be Found", where an anthem carries across the waves of social media platforms, feel uncannily similar to the much more affecting "Unruly Heart" from the film version of The Prom, released on Netflix last Christmas. It's hard to shake the question: would it have, in a similar vein to Hamilton or Come From Away, been more successful to have released a pro-shot version of the stage production, given the set is currently lying dormant in New York.

Onto the cast: leaving aside debates around the Tony-winners age (as it's a fruitless topic to discuss), Platt's performance is tricky to gauge. The show hinges on whether or not you want to, in spite of his unforgivable acts, understand why Evan is doing what he is doing. With his sunken eyes, awkward demeanour and fixation on Connor's younger sister Zoe, Evan comes across more as creepy than consumed with anxiety. One number, "If I Could Tell Her", with a montage of moments where the older Evan is near-stalking the young teen, makes for uncomfortable viewing. Sure, singing wise he's note-perfect, but few scenes, beyond an explicit mention of his flawed relationship with his father, really allow audiences to root for Evan.

Other performances glow with less ambiguity – Amy Adams is in solid form as Connor's mother Cynthia, while Julianne Moore makes a lot out of what feels to be a smaller role as Evan's mum Heidi. The tear ducts will have to try a whole lot not to be brought on when, in the middle of "You Will Be Found", Connor's stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) breaks down into the arms of his wife, finally confronted by the grief he had long compartmentalised. Kaitlyn Dever's Zoe has a further side of darkly relatable humour – it's a fantastic evolution of a role that can often get swept away among Evan's lies.

Ben Platt as Evan Hansen
© 2021 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

So it all adds up to a mystifying finish. Spectators will likely land on one of three outcomes: it's either passably interesting (though overly long), rousingly novel or terrifyingly awful – all depending on whether or not you can empathise with Evan's so-called plight. That's something, I suppose.

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