At the beginning of my semester abroad here in New York, I saw Tootsie and in my review of that show I alluded to the show I saw tonight: Dear Evan Hansen. How the writers had to tackle writing for a character that does inexcusably bad things and how they had to resolve them at the end. Now I have to admit, after finally seeing it that I have not been completely fair towards this show. My criticism still mostly stands, but seeing the show did put it into perspective. And I accredit that mostly to the cast that performed tonight and their interpretation of the characters.
Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Michael Grief who also directed the Pullitzer Prize winning Rent and Next To Normal, is a play that centers mostly around the titular Evan Hansen. Evan is a lonely kid, he has trouble making friends and at the start of the story he is writing a letter to his therapist. A letter in which he describes how his day is going to be, ‘Dear Evan Hansen…’. Evan lives at home with a single mother who is working constantly and when she’s not working she’s at night school, adding only to Evan’s loneliness. Things change when Connor Murphy, the brother of his crush Zoe, takes his therapy letter from the school printer and disappears. Only to be found later on with the letter as his apparent suicide note. Trying to console the parents with their loss, and trying to get closer to Zoe, he and his friend Jared make up a plot to insert Evan into their lives.
A lot of the conversation surrounding this show is about mental health which is also where my strong opinions on this show come from. It is never openly said in the show what Evan suffers from but it is apparent from his tics and social awkwardness that there is something going on. He takes pills to calm down and he goes to therapy. A lot of people online seem to relate to Evan and excuse his actions towards the Murphy family as being a side effect of his mental health issues. Taking a ‘it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t help it’ approach. This was something I used to take umbrage with, until I saw the show tonight and I saw that Evan’s actions are not excused. Evan’s actions are almost irredeemably bad but he shows deep remorse and there is a moment at the end (unearned, perhaps?) where they give him hope for redemption. However, the real consequences of his actions are mostly skipped over by a time-skip in the plot, a case of tell- rather than show. This is where a lot of the main misinterpretations come from, the fact that the family members most affected by Evan’s lies never get to talk to him after he has confessed only adds to that fact. The creators do show that the actions are bad, but hide them mostly in subtext as to not bring the spirits of the audience down. After all, who wants to see the protagonist go down at the end of a story?
As I said at the beginning, what saved this show are the performances. Andrew Barth Feldman is a real-life high-school senior but not only is his singing voice incredible, but he can also act like hell. Andrew puts an Evan on stage that is a clear outcast, his face has such a range of emotion that he is able to convey the depth of Evan’s arc at the end, and his timing is impeccable. Acting opposite him we have Gabrielle Carrubba, equally young in looks. Gabrielle as Zoe has a very interesting arc to go through. She is the one at the end that has to give Evan hope for redemption, even though he just completely rewrote her, and her family’s history. The emotion and the depth in Gabriella’s performance is palpable, especially in how she makes Zoe react to her brother’s death. Other stand-outs in the cast are Jessica Philips, Jared Goldsmith and Christiane Noll. Jessica Philips as Evan’s mother, is the catalyst for the second act. She has to slowly figure out what Evan is doing and in two of the show’s best numbers ‘Good for You’ and ‘So Big/ So Small’ she has to navigate through conflicting emotions to guide her son and Jessica portrays it very naturally. Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy, the matriarch of the Murphy family fills a similar role albeit from the other side. She clings to everything Evan brings that might help her to decipher the mystery of her son. Christiane realizes the best portrayal of a grieving mother I have ever seen on stage. Jared Goldsmith on the other hand brings some much needed levity to this dark play when he at seemingly random intervals helps Evan with his schemes. Jared as Jared has impeccable comedic timing but also knows when to bring the serious.
It is in the interpretation by the audience where a lot of the nuance of the performances or the text gets lost. This is a pity because the goal the creators are trying to achieve is noble.
The set of the play is kept minimalist on purpose. David Korins (scenic design) and Peter Nigrini (projection design) work seamlessly together to create these spaces that exist in a digital world. Panels and screens move over the stage to keep the show moving, these panels and screens show us Social Media feeds representing online conversation about situations in the show, but the screens also show us snippets of real life stuck in a digital state. Fragments of a house mixed with sentences said make the audience create the environment in their head. The mobility of the panels and the dynamic it brings to the show is helped by the fact that the rest of the set is also constantly in motion. A dining-room table, multiple bedrooms and a living-room on circular platforms get driven on and off the stage creating almost film-like transitions. The physicality of the social media feeds is also a very creative way to convey how information gets shared as on multiple occasions the characters just stare at the sheer vastness of information, an appropriate use of show- don’t tell.
But what brings this entire package together is the music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Dear Evan Hansen is the musical that made them big-leagues and it shows why. The amount of emotion they are able to force into melodies is insane. Especially the group numbers they hit out of the park, songs like ‘Requiem,’ ‘Good for You’ and ‘You Will Be Found’ will have you completely overtaken by the action on stage. The songs also represent the epitome of modern Broadway sound, where there are a lot of moments for musical interpretation by the actors and where there is a lot of belting.
Dear Evan Hansen is one of those modern shows that tries to tackle a difficult subject and succeeds mostly. But it is in the interpretation by the audience where a lot of the nuance of the performances or the text gets lost. This is a pity because the goal the creators are trying to achieve is noble, especially since the show has been campaigning for better understanding of mental health issues. But if the show can’t be clear enough on the problems of their own characters I don’t know if it should speak on behalf of others. As someone who has been diagnosed with autism myself I felt alienated because a lot of the audience members seem to excuse his actions on account of his mental health. As someone who’s apart of the community I just want to say, we aren’t that different from you and Evan’s actions are definitely not excusable on account of his condition. I implore everyone who thinks that way to see the show again to understand that.
Seen on: 12/18/19, seen at: the Music Box Theater in New York. STEVEN LEVENSON: Book, BENJ PASEK: Music and Lyrics, JUSTIN PAUL: Music and Lyrics, DAVID BRIAN BROWN: Hair Design, BEN COHN: Music Director, MICHAEL GRIEF: Director, MICHAEL KELLER: Music Coordinator, DAVID KORINS: Scenic Designer, ALEX LACAMOIRE: Music Supervisor, Orchestrator, Additional Arrangements, DANNY MEFFORD: Choreographer, JUSTIN PAUL: Vocal Arranger and Additional Arrangements, EMILY REBHOLZ: Costume Designer, JUDITH SCHOENFELD: Production Stage Manager, NEVIN STEINBERG: Sound Designer, JAPHY WEIDEMAN: Lighting Designer.