In a very strong year for musical theatre with big revivals and plenty of brand new shows opening in the West End it can be difficult to stand out, especially for young performers looking to establish a career with their first break-out role. But the heralding of a great new talent of any age is always big news and it’s comforting to know that while audiences flock to see their favourite established stars – and this year Jason Donovan, Sheridan Smith, Katherine McPhee and Bonnie Langford have returned to the London stage – important leading roles are still given to graduates fresh from drama school where exceptional performances can set them on the road to a glittering career.
Jac Yarrow’s Joseph was lauded by critics and audiences alike when he all but stole the show from his famous co-stars, instantly everyone knew his name and the show returns to The Palladium next summer. Over at the Noel Coward, the UK premiere of the American smash-hit musical Dear Evan Hansen may well do the same for some of its young cast, several of whom are making their professional debut in one of the year’s most anticipated productions. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the musical theatre force behind hit films La La Land and The Greatest Showman that have arguably done more to modernise and popularise the genre than any other musicians and lyricists of the last five years, creating a cult following that is about to translate to the London stage. What sets Dear Evan Hansen apart is its status really as the first major musical of the social media age.
Where other shows have integrated smart phone and tablet technology into their stories as accessories, plot devices and sometimes staging techniques, Dear Evan Hansen is really the first musical to utilise and comment on the blurring of the boundaries between public and private that our 24/7 exposure to social media has engendered. The creation of online personas, communication channels and engagement is sewn in to every aspect of the show, it drives the plot as the protagonist accidentally unleashes an internet storm he struggles to contain but it also filters through to the way the show is staged, how characters are shown to interact to one another and to the bigger themes that Pasek, Paul and book writer Steven Levensen explore.
Over the course of its 2 hours and 45 minutes, those themes are shown to be increasingly complicated as our muddy relationship with the online world we simultaneously feed and resent is not as straightforward as it appears. So while the show initially looks set to vilify social media and its poisonous influence on image and expectations of behaviour, in fact the writers suggest a far more intriguing proposition, one which argues that it is the characters’ (and our) misuse of these platforms that has become so detrimental. So, even an attempted good deed can rapidly spin out of control. And this is one of Dear Evan Hansen’s most accomplished tricks, to let the audience think that they are watching a slightly cliched High School drama in which a lonely, nerdy 17-year old will transform into a beautiful swan. Instead, the writers take the story quite quickly in an unexpected direction.
Yet, for all its modern credentials, Pasek, Paul and Levensen know that musical theatre is all about human connection, that their technological framework is a structure for examining the ways in which families, friends and strangers interact with one another and the emotional ramifications of those relationships. Dear Evan Hansen is chirpy and fun, it bounces along with archetypal characters and occasionally outlandish scenarios as events unfold, and the creative team clearly enjoy playing with the multimedia staging techniques, but it never distracts them from the basis of the genre, focusing always on the personal examination of isolation, loneliness and self-acceptance at that crucial transition stage from child to adulthood.
Musicals may have a mixed reputation but their popularity resides in their ability to showcase complex or heightened emotional states in a single song, whereas a playwright might struggle to express the same in pages of dialogue or even an entire play. They have a unique ability to affect audience responses to the story through music – something which filmmakers know well and a carefully composed score can do as much as the actors to shape the mood of the piece. The songs in Dear Evan Hansen are a very modern mix of pop-influenced styles rather than the more traditional musical theatre melodies that take their lead from classical music and are more typical of the West End stalwarts. Increasingly, musical writers are looking to fresher, diversified styles to capture a different audience but the choices here also suit the age and personality of the characters they are writing for.
At the heart of this show is the perspective of four teenagers, Evan himself, the hapless and lonely protagonist, Connor whose early (unseen) suicide shocks the production out of its generic High School trajectory and drives the plot, Jared who conspires with Evan to lie to the world and Alana who becomes the self-nominated guardian of Connor’s digital memory project – all played by performers making their professional or West End debut. Against a backdrop of tweets and Instagram posts, designed by Peter Nigrini and projected all over David Korins very simple set of stationary flies that cut up the large space to create intimate rooms including Evan’s bedroom and the Murphy family home, the character interactions take place both in person and on social media platforms demarcated on the stage in different ways.
Sitting on their laptops, each of the teenagers is shown in a separate projected frame that looks like a smartphone screen as they Facetime each other while updated feeds scroll behind them. When Evan makes his big speech at Connor’s memorial and when Alana updates the blog with new information, TV screens – sparingly used – project their words around the auditorium to represent the hundreds of people viewing the vlog online. But Nigrini also distorts some of these images, making them look warped as they project across different levels of set when the lie takes on a momentum of its own, with strangers reposting, commenting and offering faux sentiment on individuals they have never met.
At other points Nigrini emphasises the power of words that are the building blocks of social media, with text from Evan’s original letter with pertinent words picked out in bold projected across the whole stage, showcasing the starting point for all the ensuing madness and a reminder of the character’s own pre-existing personal desperation, mistaken for Connor’s, and now engulfed in an internet frenzy. When all of that dies down to focus on the Murphy’s grief or other moments of intimacy, the stage can look a little too empty yet the entire effect that director Michael Greif creates is an astute understanding of the pressures that our online presence can create not just for mental health and wellbeing, but also the ultimate emptiness of that outpouring of platitudes and sympathy expressed online by strangers after a tragic event who know neither the context or the person involved, especially when the object of their faux sentiments was previously overlooked and ignored. And while the outcome is a positive memory of Connor, what does it say about our society that his death means more than his life?
This is sure to be a star-making role for lead actor Sam Tutty who will undoubtedly be the one to face the press this week, but Alternate Evan Marcus Harman who assumed the part for this performance deserves as much recognition. In some ways Evan is a classic teenage role, an outsider desperate to find a place in the confusing school hierarchy and, with divorced parents, grappling with self-confidence issues as he tries to work out who he is. Harman plays the occasionally stuttery and bemused Evan extremely well, charting his increasing panic and befuddlement as the depth and speed of his small white lie eclipses his entire life.
But Harman also shows an Evan emerging from solitude and using his storytelling ability to create on one level a false persona as Connor’s secret best friend who becomes a school star, yet underneath a more confident young adult starts to break through, finally able to vocalise his anger towards his often absent mother and start to accept his own sense of purpose. Some of his fellow characters are more impressionistic but Harman makes Evan likable and a credible adoptee for the Murphy family who fulfill his own yearning for traditional parenting and stability. Harman also sings well, his powerful voice conveying all those mixed teenage emotions to the back of the auditorium in solos including ‘Waving Through a Window’ and ‘Words Fail.’ Tutty may get the press night glory but if you see Harman’s performance you won’t be disappointed.
Playing his classmates are a fellow group of debutantes who bring plenty of colour to the supporting cast. Jack Loxton as non-friend Jared is primarily a comedy sidekick who helps Evan to forge emails supposedly from Connor, and Loxton’s sharp timing adds much to the performance. Doug Colling as Connor has a larger role than you might think despite his early demise, becoming a conscience for Evan as well as his own personification in the brilliant ‘Sincerely Me’ with Jared and Evan. Finally Nicole Raquel Dennis as Alana goes from barely remembering Connor in her English or chemistry class to Co-President of his memorial website and guardian of his legacy. We discover little about her as a person but her purpose as the human face of the media storm is pertinent and well conveyed by Dennis, at once earnestly self-perpetuating and hungry for revelation while jealously guarding the right to control and determine the right kind pf public response.
Lucy Anderson as love interest Zoe and Connor’s sister belongs more to the family sections and marks Evan growth away from his teenage life and it is a solid debut from Anderson who offers more grit than many female characters in such roles. The adult are more in the background of the drama but there are some touching moments with Rupert Young’s Larry Murphy whose contained grief and cynicism sympathetically crumbles as he gets to know his son Connor (or thinks he does) through Evan and there is a subtle and sweetly played connection with Harman. Lauren Ward as Connor’s mother Cynthia suggests all the hope of a parent unable to come to terms with the loss of a child, while Rebecca McKinnis as Evan’s harassed mum Heidi does just enough in a small role to give context to Evan’s original plight as well as shaming him enough to propel the conclusion.
There are aspects of Dear Evan Hansen that perhaps don’t quite work, the style and lyrics are often quite saccharine, while the overarching story could easily shed a couple of numbers with no material effect on the plot that would help to neaten the running time especially towards the end of Act Two with several story strands to conclude – the depth of some of the wider characterisation perhaps not deserving of so many solos and reprises. But it’s dark and miserable outside – both politically and seasonally – so why actively resist the charms of this feel-good story. The close integration and self-enforcing completeness of story and technology makes this truly the first responsive musical of the social media age with a number of excellent break-out performances. So email, tweet, Instagram and Facebook all your friends and RSVP to Dear Evan Hansen’s message to us all -#youwillbefound.