BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN, Noel Coward Theatre
Anxiety. Isolation. Depression. One would be forgiven for thinking that a musical addressing such weighty topics would be downbeat and maudlin - yet Dear Evan Hansen is anything but.
First opening on Broadway in 2016, Dear Evan Hansen is perhaps the longest-anticipated musical Broadway transfer in recent years (perhaps with the exception of Waitress).
After a flurry of Tony Awards, and a star turn in the titular role by Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen has gained a cult following over these last three years - in large part due to the score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and its zeitgeist-y narrative around social media's role in mental health issues. Its opening in the West End, then, inevitably comes with a lot of baggage and expectation. But fans needn't worry - we've got a hit on our hands here.
The beauty of this new musical is its ability to be uplifting, despite its core plot point: teen suicide. That is quite the dichotomy, but thanks to a sophisticated book by Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen is able to give the subject matter the delicate consideration that it deserves, whilst leaning into the humour and potential possibilities for redemption of these troubled characters.
This achievement is in no small way due to Sam Tutty's extraordinary performance as Evan. Levenson has written a rich and complex title character - a well-meaning yet chronically anxious teenager who feels isolated from the world at large. Tutty is a striking presence, contorting his body subtly with nervous tics, incessant blinking and the awkward smile of a teen who hasn't found his place in this world. Every emotion of Evan can be seen and felt in Tutty's soulful eyes and incredibly moving vocals - a bold and brave performance that is certain to make him a star. Move over, Ben Platt - we've found our own Evan Hansen, and he's the real deal.
The principal cast are all extremely capable and slick performers, and a pleasing combination of experienced actors alongside West End debutants. Jack Loxton is standout at Evan's 'friend' Jared - a much-needed comic tonic. Some of the most enjoyable scenes are the ones between Evan, Jared and an imaginary Connor (played by a brilliantly brooding Doug Colling), thanks to the energy and chemistry between these three performers.
Connor's characterisation in the earlier scenes feels a bit rushed, and there isn't much time spent on establishing his motivations or struggles before the drama kicks off and we move into more existential territory. This is no doubt intentional, but I think an additional couple of scenes to flesh out Connor a bit more would make the fallout that follows all the more dramatic.
Pasek and Paul's score is a surprising mix of genres and tempos. From the rock-esque "Sincerely Me" to gentle ballad "For Forever", we're treated to a diverse mix of earworms that keeps audience on their toes. The joy of this score is that you genuinely don't know what you're going to get next. It's notable - and testament to the writing abilities of Pasek and Paul - that the quieter songs have equal impact to the bigger numbers. The touching moment between Evan and his mum (played beautifully by Rebecca McKinnis) during "So Big/So Small" is as gut-wrenching and gulp-inducing as the soaring "You Will Be Found" that sits at the end of Act I.
The inventive set design, using layered digital screens, is an essential vehicle in elevating the narrative beyond the conceptual and making Evan's social media-consumed world completely tangible for the audience. Projection, lighting and sound design are in perfect partnership here (Peter Nigrini, Japhy Weideman and Nevin Steinberg respectively), creating musical theatre magic.
Dear Evan Hansen will undoubtedly skew younger in its audience, but there's enough exploration of relationships to ensure its appeal spans generations. It will be intriguing to see how a show that's so heavily reliant on social media culture will age - the repeated references to Facebook already feel somewhat dated - but here's hoping the buzz will last and keep this show in the West End for a long while to come. We need it.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy