Review: Dear Evan Hansen (Noël Coward Theatre)
The Tony Award-winning musical has its UK premiere
There are lies, damned lies and things we post on social media.
That's the gist of Dear Evan Hansen, the six-time Tony Award-winning musical that comes to the UK after its 2015 debut in Washington DC. It follows a small-town, socially impaired yet amiable kid who, through a series of unexpected events, lies his way into making a grieving family believe that he was best buds with their deceased son. The whole piece is couched in a world of digital hysteria – Peter Nigrini's semi-blurred and fragmented projections of news feeds, timelines and Spotify playlists flood David Korins' set, whirling to and fro as the impact of Evan's deception slowly unspools.
It's an unlikely subject matter for a musical, and Steven Levenson's book and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's score revel in being at odds with one another – the anxiety-inducing precariousness of Evan's deception (there's a creeping sense throughout that truth is seeping through the cracks) undercuts the joviality of the soaring, rousing numbers, especially the climactic end to act one when things begin falling apart during the triumphant "You Will Be Found".
The result is something quite extraordinary – a musical not like any other. Director Michael Greif's staging is desperately, torturously uncomfortable at times, while other moments shimmer with genuine pathos.
And its success depends entirely on its leading man. Evan has to be likeable but flawed – the show can only work if everything he does comes from a place of desperation rather than manipulation. This wasn't much of an issue when the production premiered in the States – the role's originator Ben Platt had already won over audiences' hearts through sheer likability and a solid track record in Pitch Perfect or The Book of Mormon.
It's admirable, then, that producer Stacey Mindich has assembled a raft of first-time stars to take on lead parts in this West End run. Debutant Sam Tutty isn't Platt, but in many ways that's a good thing. He wears a lot of the characters' flaws on his cast-sporting sleeve, from nervous ticks to jaunted mannerisms and turbulent dialogue. It's hard to appear simultaneously nervy while capable of holding the attention of 900 spectators, but it's something Tutty manages adeptly – the sort of assurance you rarely get from a first timer. He comes into his own in act two – especially during the tearjerking "Words Fail" as his fake world crumbles.
But Tutty's success comes while sitting on the shoulders of some titanic supporting performances: another newcomer, Lucy Anderson, plays the role of dead boy Connor Murphy's sister Zoe with an initially barbed rage, gently mellowing as she comes to trust Evan, all before visibly rebuilding the emotional walls she had torn down. There's some fantastic comedic work done by Nicole Raquel Dennis as school campaigner Alana and Jack Loxton as Evan's sex-obsessed family friend Jared, who, alongside Doug Colling's deceased teen Connor (appearing from beyond the grave), delivers the first real showstopper "Sincerely Me".
In a piece that spends a large portion of its runtime focussing on the anxieties of teens, it's often the adults that steal the show – Rupert Young and Lauren Ward present a rich, textured relationship as Murphy's parents and, in a star-making turn, the second act belongs squarely to Rebecca McKinnis as Evan's mum Heidi – delivering two awe-inspiring yet completely contrasting numbers in "Good For You" and "So Big / So Small". There's something tragic about the way she encourages Evan to leave the family home and head to college without her – "how many times do you get the chance to start again?"
Does the piece sit as well with British audiences as it may over the Atlantic? Probably not – but it's a hard, unsettling watch, and bears no resemblance to the last supercharged Broadway export that landed in London. Dear Evan Hansen is a desperately powerful exploration of a troubled teen sacrificing the truth for a sense of comfort – startlingly relevant for a world swaddled in screens and fleeting fictions.