Class, loneliness, and suicide are the three emotional flavours sliding through the musical Dear Evan Hansen. But while the subject matter provides ample emotional sustenance, the slow-moving pacing of the story and rhythms of the music cause it to stall in moments. Once those moments pass, though, it proves its award-winning merits with more heart than you can shake a Tony at.
Evan Hansen is a friendless nerd with a broken arm. On the first day of school, he begins an assignment for his therapist. He is supposed to write, “Dear Evan Hansen. Today is a good day because…”. But the angst written note he creates instead is stolen by angry loner Connor Murphy. When it is found in Connor’s pocket after Connor takes his own life, the town believes the two boys were friends– an assumption that Evan fails to deny. The resulting increase in status and connection that Evan receives is both troubling and welcome. But in the age of social media, things get out of hand quicker than it takes Facebook to buy up the latest viral video app.
On this night, the lead role of Evan Hansen was played by alternate Sam Primack, who belted to the back of the QE theatre as if every note was a personal gift to that very last row. He is an astonishing performer, with vulnerability and reckless emotionality that forces you to see the nervous high school kid and not a talented adult actor.
But the show really belongs to the women. As Evan’s mom Heidi, Jessica E. Sherman was a frustrating mix of pride and fierce protective love that you want to stand up and shake as much as give her a hug. Claire Rankin, as Mrs. Murphy, brought an understated grace to a role that could easily have read as an out of touch caricature of a rich white woman. But the real standout was Stephanie La Rochelle as love interest Zoe whose voice effortlessly blends a heart-achingly folksy soprano with Broadway technique, bringing real emotion to an underwritten high school girl.
Dear Evan Hansen is a complex show dealing with heavy themes. Evan is so lonely he makes choices that, in the hands of a less accomplished actor, would make him completely unlikeable. Elements of class difference cause tension between the two central family units that are never fully resolved. Side characters with a range of rage disappear and never receive another opportunity to speak their mind. This lack of resolution is unsatisfying, but it is also truthful, giving this show a power few modern musicals have achieved. It aches, and that ache never entirely leaves. Instead, it burrows into the heart, providing companionship and solace for the pains kept there.
Dear Evan Hansen tackles topics you wouldn’t discuss at the dinner table, posits questions without answers and showcases grief without showing its end. But in doing so, it provides an honest and heartfelt snapshot of a lonely teenager in the digital age and how addictive attention – any attention – becomes to such a starving boy. The fact that it has resonated with so many audiences speaks to the universality of those feelings. We all fear we are Evan Hansen, and this musical allows us to see that we are not alone and that we will be found.
Dear Evan Hansen. Book by Steven Levenson. Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Presented by Broadway Across Canada. Directed by Michael Grief. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (630 Hamilton St, Vancouver) until March 1, 2020. Visit vancouver.broadway.com for tickets and information.