Wednesday 19 February 2020

Dear Evan Hansen

Noel Coward Theatre
8th February, 2020, matinee

'All that it takes is a little reinvention'

Firstly, apologies for the radio silence of late, we have been busy moving house and planning our upcoming wedding, so theatre and blogging has had to take a temporary back-seat(!!!!)

Now, onto my first show of the new decade.

On the surface I should be the bullseye of the target audience for Dear Evan Hansen – a production which stormed Broadway in 2016 and beat out tough competition (Come From Away, Groundhog Day, Great Comet) to triumph at that season’s Tony Awards. As documented previously on this blog, I’ve experienced mental illness from the age of 11, and over the last 17 years I’ve suffered from anxiety, depression and the crippling loneliness of social isolation throughout my teens. I should identify and profoundly relate to the central character of the musical. But, somehow, for a show that is all about connecting with other people, I didn’t. I will try to unpick the possible reasons for my disconnect in the following paragraphs, but ultimately, I feel that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and Steven Levenson (book) have produced a slightly disappointing and naïve take on the subjects of 21st century adolescence, the liberation vs. encumberment of social media, and the mental health pandemic sweeping the globe.

The story – a teenager with social anxiety unintentionally goes viral when he claims to have been friends with a local boy that committed suicide – has the bones of a great drama. However, Levenson’s book fails to flesh out the plot and many of the central characters. The sensitive subject of teen suicide could be handled in several ways: an honest, deep and sympathetic portrayal of Connor Murphy, illuminating the true hardships of mental illness, raising awareness of the need for better social and medical care (a preachy but worthy approach); an intimate chamber piece looking at the aftermath and lasting effects on the family of the victim; or alternatively, we could be presented with a pitch black social satire on the pitfalls of social media (echo chambers, #fakenews, popularity contests, morbid humble-bragging and self-publicising, and the hypocrisy of trolls that are only ready to display empathy when they have already condemned the victim to the worst possible eventuality). Pasek, Paul and Levenson try to portray all three of these scenarios. It’s too much to cram into a two hour show and the resulting lack of focus leads to a tepid and underdeveloped approach to a subject that is close to my (and thousands of others’) hearts.

Evan Hansen is a solid leading character, and in the capable hands of newcomer Marcus Harman, he’s engaging and likeable in his relatable angsty ways. Yet, of and for the other characters I felt very little. For a relatively small cast (8 actors), the other roles are lacklustre. There are several wasted opportunities for character development  – I’d have been fascinated to see more of the psychological reasoning behind the Murphys behaviour towards Evan following Connor’s death (especially Zoe’s internal conflict over her antagonistic feelings for her brother), and Levenson and co. missed a chance to draw more from the peculiar relationship between Evan and fellow loner Alana. The eleventh hour revelations about Alana’s motives, and her attempts to connect with others, could have been a really moving and illuminating moment in the show, yet it’s skimmed over in a weirdly throwaway manner. Similarly, the denouement is problematically glossed over; one minute Evan’s secret is out, his world comes crashing down, and the next we see him months later, a slightly more confident young man, and the intervening seasons are wavered with the odd flippant remark. We see too little of the aftermath of this momentous revelation. It feels a cop out to present a show that addresses such serious topics and then drop the curtain just as it starts to get difficult – it even seems a little cowardly. Oh well, I gather a novelisation was released following the Broadway premier – maybe that ties up the loose ends.

I feel this muddled quality is partly down to the tonally jarring and trite restrictiveness of Pasek and Paul’s songs. Their soaring melodies with sugary lyrics seem more fitting for the melodramatic fanfare of TV talent shows than a sympathetic analysis of the complexities of the teenage social sphere. That’s not to say the songs aren’t commendable in their own right – they’re often catchy (‘Waving through a Window’), uplifting (‘You Will Be Found’), occasionally amusing (‘Sincerely Me’) and beautifully sung by the cast – I just feel that, rather than adding layers of artistic or thematic meaning to the show, they detract from the dramatic clout the piece promises. Compared with the punchy music of Sater and Sheik’s Spring Awakening - which handles similar themes of teenage angst, relationships, social disquiet, and suicide with lyrical piquancy that imbues the piece with a sort of post-naivety that is unique to the adolescent psyche – Dear Evan Hansen feels pedestrian, a polished but distant façade, not unlike Peter Nigrini’s numerous smartphone and laptop screen projections that populate David Korins’ sparse set.

Director Michael Greif, along with choreographer Danny Mefford, creates some nicely staged moments, notably in the comic mimicry of ‘Sincerely Me’, and the simple but effective way of portraying the isolation vs. connectivity of social media interactions – the compartmentalising of characters (in boxes, on screens) is a neat use of Nigrini’s projections and videography. The role of Evan is a fantastic showcase for up and coming young actors and it’s nice to see newcomers being given the opportunity to shine. The supporting cast do a fine job with the material they’re given, but for all intents and purposes Dear Evan Hansen is a one man show.

On another positive note, it was a pleasure to see an audience predominantly populated by young people. The teenagers around us were evidently big fans of the show and were gripped throughout. The fact that these youngsters (yep, I said ‘youngsters’ - wow, I feel old!) are so engaged and moved by a piece of theatre is heart-warming, and suggests that maybe I’m not the real target audience for Dear Evan Hansen after all. While not quite to my taste, Pasek and Paul are encouraging more audiences to embrace the arts, and that is commendable in and of itself. I only wish such a promising premise had a little more ‘oomph’ in its execution.

Dear Evan Hansen is currently booking at the Noel Coward Theatre until 30th May 2020.
The cast of Dear Evan Hansen.
Credit: Matthew Murphy.

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