Stage Door Review

Dear Evan Hansen

Friday, March 29, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

music & lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, book by Steven Levenson, directed by Michael Greif

Stacey Mindich with David Mirvish, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto

March 28-July 21, 2019

“Waving through a window”

Stacey Mindich in association with David Mirvish is presenting the first international production of Dear Evan Hansen, the musical by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul that won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Musical. Mental illness among teenagers and teen suicide are hardly usual subjects for musicals, but Steven Levenson’s book that drags the Broadway musical screaming into the present digital age proves these topics have been too long ignored in musicals. The production is dazzling in ways both good and bad, but what shines through in the show is the impressive score of Pasek and Paul and its willingness to embrace moral ambiguity. The show is worth seeing simply for the phenomenal performance of Robert Markus in the title role. 

The show concerns Evan Hansen, a teen with deep psychological problems, who is extraordinarily anxious about high school starting again when he will be a senior. Though Levenson never states what Evan’s mental condition is, it is very clear from his physical and mental symptoms that he has a paralyzing social anxiety disorder. This accounts for his crippling shyness, bouts of severe sweating, his fear of meeting people, his phobia of touching people or being touched, his inability to speak in public and his tendency to lie. He is on medication and is seeing a therapist who has given him the assignment of writing himself a letter every day (hence the show’s title) about the good things that have happened to him. His parents divorced when he was seven and he lives with his mother who works so hard at her job as a nurse and takes night classes that he rarely sees her. The one person he idolizes is Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle), a girl in his school, but he is so socially awkward he always makes a fool of himself in her presence.

It so happens that Zoe’s brother Connor (Sean Patrick Dolan), who suffers from untreated depression and uncontrollable anger, commits suicide with one of Evan’s “Dear Evan Hansen” letters in his pocket. Connor’s parents Larry (Evan Buliung) and Cynthia (Claire Rankin), assume that Evan must have been a good friend of Connor’s or else he would not have addressed his final words to him. Although he was not friends with Connor, Evan does not have the social skills to deny this and by merely agreeing with the parents’ assumptions finds himself appreciated in Connor’s home in a way he never has been in his own home with an absent father and a mother who is too busy to be with him. Plus he is near to Zoe. 

Unfortunately, Evan cannot control his propensity for fabrication and has his friend Jared (Alessandro Costantini) create a back-dated e-mail correspondence between and Connor while another friend Alana (Shakura Dickson) sets up a school memorial service for Connor, and a kickstarter campaign to buy and renew the unused orchard where Connor and Evan supposedly spent all their time together. 

Book writer Steven Levenson builds tension throughout all of Act 1 and far into Act 2 as we wonder when Evan’s ever-growing concatenation of lies will collapse. The problem with Levenson’s book is that he paints himself into a corner. He wants to show both how Evan’s lies grow out of control and yet he wants us to see Evan as a good guy. The step Evan takes in having Jared create false e-mails goes beyond merely lying into forgery, and it is at that point that Evan could and should have stopped his posing as Connor’s best friend. Yet, that would have ended the show in Act 1.

Faced with having prolonged Evan’s piling of lies upon lies so far, Stevenson has to fudge the results to achieve the outcome he wants for his plot. When Evan finally has to admit that he, not Connor, wrote the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter and that the e-mail correspondence was made up, Stevenson has Zoe and Mrs. Murphy simply run off stage and Mr. Murphy turn his back on Evan. If Stevenson were being honest with us, this would be the time for the Murphy family to pour out their hurt and outrage, preferably in song, at Evan and for Evan to feel totally mortified. Instead of this, Stevenson focusses only only Evan’s pain and then shifts the subject to Evan’s mother and her pain. Alana and Jared, who bear some responsibility for the situation, simply disappear from the story.

Stevenson’s book deserves credit for placing the issues of mental illness and suicide among teenagers on stage in a musical and for depicting the ordinary everyday life of today and its heavy dependence on electronic devices. Nevertheless, despite the show’s having won a multitude of awards, Stevenson’s failure to dramatize the consequences of the plot is disappointing and must be counted as a flaw.

It seems clear that most people don’t notice this flaw because they are carried away on what must be Pasek and Paul’s best-ever score. After the quasi-operatic scores of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the ostentatiously clever wordplay of Stephen Sondheim, it is a relief to find a musical organized around musical numbers that sound like separate songs. “Waving Through a Window” from this show is an example of song from a musical becoming a pop song covered by others, something that used to happening frequently but has died out over the last few decades. Pasek and Paul write in a folk-influenced pop-rock style with lyrics that express emotion simply and directly without calling attention to themselves.

The all-Canadian cast is very well chosen and, though Evan and Heidi are starring roles, they all work together as a tight ensemble. Robert Markus is simply outstanding as Evan. He makes all of Evan’s quirks and extreme shyness sit believably alongside Evan’s sudden expansiveness when telling lies. His voice is remarkably strong and rich and he has the ability to use his falsetto to float heavenly high notes. All his songs succeed beautifully from “Waving Through a Window”, to “For Forever” to the downcast “Words Fail”. It’s difficult to imagine a better performance.

As Heidi, Jessica Sherman proves that an ordinary over-worked mother can also be a principal character in a musical. Stevenson’s dialogue for Heidi keeps landing her in contradictions – on the one hand saying that she’ll always be there for Evan, on the other seldom actually being at home. Sherman blows the roof off the theatre with her heart-rending account of “So Big/So Small” about her struggles in trying to be a good mother.

Among the Murphy family, Sean Patrick Dolan does display authentically troubling behaviour as Connor. We hear that Connor has been violent toward Zoe and we see that he easily takes offence and is all-to-ready to counter it with aggression. One might think that Connor is a small role since the character dies in the first half of the first act, but Dolan continues to appear in the guise of Connor throughout the play as an advocate for the good that Evan’s thinks he is doing for the Murphy family. In this role, Dolan adopts a gentle acting and speaking style completely unlike the harshness he used as the living Connor. 

Stephanie La Rochelle is a sympathetic Zoe and finely gradates her reaction to Evan from intruder on her family’s privacy to warming to him as an essentially good person. La Rochelle delicately depicts Zoe’s situation of treating Evan kindly when she realizes how much he idolizes her.

Evan Buliung and Claire Rankin are well paired as Connor and Zoe’s parents. They contrast Claire’s flightiness and outward emotional nature with Larry’s steadiness and inward emotional nature. This gives Builiung the chance to give another fine example as he did in Fun Home last year, of a middle-aged male expressing deep emotions by attempting to speak of other topics, in this case of teaching Evan how “To Break in a Glove”, a glove he Connor but that Connor never used.

Humour in the show comes primarily from the clichéd figure of Jared Kleiman, the teenaged Jewish boy obsessed with sex. Alessandro Costantini does make the character amusing but tends to fulfil rather escape the stereotype. It’s frankly embarrassing that Stevenson should have Jared be the one to try to profit literally from Connor’s death. Shakura Dickson has the more interesting role of Alana, a Black girl with no friends who compensates for that fact by hijacking Connor’s death as a cause in which she can display her leadership skills. 

Given that the action is set in the present and deals with teens fully involved in communicating by Skype and Facebook, it makes sense that David Korins’s scenic design should present us with a black stage stage with sliding screens as a neutral surface for Peter Negrini’s extensive projections of Twitter feeds, e-mail threads, Facebook images and YouTube videos. Although director Michael Grief has Negrini tune down all the visual stimulation during the most private and important songs, the visual background both on the screens and on the stage floor often verges on being too much and in the case of some numbers like “Good for You” fully tips over into excess. 

The current production of Dear Evan Hansen succeeds on its memorably tuneful score and its superior performances. It contains the rousing anthem “You Will Be Found”, suggesting that there is hope for all those stuck in the depths of loneliness, but we know no such hope for everyone is really there at least at present. The musical ends, fittingly, on an ambiguous note. A reprise of “You Will Be Found” would have felt false after the moral complexities of Evan’s situation had been exposed. While audiences will always flock to musicals with clear, upbeat messages, it’s heartening to think that they have also rallied around a more complex musical like this where the line between what is inspiring and what is not is, as in life, not so clear cut.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Robert Markus as Evan Hansen with Shakura Dickson as Alana in background; Jessica Sherman as Heidi, Sean Patrick Dolan as Connor, Robert Markus as Evan Hansen, Stephanie La Rochelle as Zoe and Claire Rankin as Cynthia; Jessica Sherman as Heidi and Robert Markus as Evan Hansen. © 2019 Matthew Murphy.

For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.