Theatre Review: Dear Evan Hansen

As Mental Health Awareness Week comes to a close, a fitting way to end it was with a trip to see the emotional rollercoaster of a musical, Dear Evan Hansen. Critically-acclaimed and award-winning, Dear Evan Hansen cleverly and sensitively handles the multi-faceted topic of mental health and the many different causes, branches and levels of it. And that is mainly what this review will focus on, rather than the show itself.

But of course, first I will rundown what it’s about. Evan Hansen is a senior in high school who suffers from social anxiety. We are first introduced to him writing letters to himself as pep talks as ordered by his therapist Dr Sherman. Not a huge deal is known or explained about his condition, yet the subject of his broken arm is an underlying factor to it and the show’s plot.

At school, Evan Hansen has no friends. He often speaks to Jared, who insists he and Evan are just family friends. He also sometimes converses with another classmate, Alana, who is more open with her struggles with mental health and loneliness. Evan secretly pines for younger student Zoe Murphy but doesn’t speak to her and believes she doesn’t know he exists. As misfortune would have it though, he runs into her older brother Connor, who is seen as a hostile loner. A misunderstanding between them soon ends with Evan being entangled in Connor’s untimely suicide and the web of lies he weaves to try and bring the Murphys together.

The musical is a heartbreaking and even at times heartwarming story of how an unlikely person and event can rally people together but also tear them apart, individually and as a group. I imagine it hits close to home for many, whether people want to openly admit that or not, but it also serves as a chilling reminder that anyone can suffer from mental health issues even if we don’t know it or know how much so. It can also make people think of how their own words and actions have consequences.

Loneliness and feeling like you are not seen by others, longing for that to no longer be the case, and of course grief are the most prominent issues relating to mental health in Dear Evan Hansen. How do each of the characters who feel lonely deal with that and act? How do others treat or see them that help or hinder that? How do those grieving deal with their loss?

The musical explores these themes and showcases the different answers to those thought-provoking questions. What it doesn’t delve into though is the destruction the lies leave in their wake. If you’ve seen the film adaptation starring the original Evan Hansen from Broadway, actor Ben Platt, the extension of that where he confesses the truths to the public, adds more poignancy and questions. While even that fails to show the consequences he faces for lying, at least compared to the stage production, it doesn’t show him in a completely half-hidden light. In the musical it appears nobody except the Murphys and his mother know the truth and the former seem to eventually forgive him for it. It’s a slightly over-romantic and unrealistic ending but at least it ends on a more positive and uplifting note rather than puts Evan through more torture of being further ostracised and labelled a liar.

Actor Ben Platt who first portrayed Evan Hansen also reprised the role in the film adaptation, though received criticism for now being “too old” to do so…

And despite the fact we know about Evan’s deceit from the beginning of the drama, which under normal circumstances we would dislike him to some extent, we actually still feel for him. We understand his motivations and his changes and are given a glimpse – but still never the full picture – into his mental state as to why he says and does things. Though this may be frustrating to some, especially since we don’t get that full understanding of his mental health, perhaps that is exactly what makes Dear Evan Hansen so complex, if endearing and haunting. We will often never know just what some people are truly thinking or feeling if they themselves don’t know, feel they can’t open up or won’t admit it.

It also makes you question why you may find some character’s actions and words unlikeable despite not being completely unlikeable characters either. Alana, for example, often comes across as quite a bossy, overbearing person as she tries to take charge of The Connor Murphy Project and insists she was a “close acquaintance” of his. But we are told by her that her relatability to Connor’s loneliness and she feels the need to be a part of the project to help others like them. Plus she appears to be the main – or only – person who wants to make a difference. Furthermore, we are shown why Connor’s father and sister Zoe are seemingly cold and even uncaring after his death, and why Evan’s mother Heidi is also both largely absent in Evan’s everyday life and so torn and angry by Evan’s secrecy.

Even Jared, who constantly teases Evan and makes the odd unkind remark – that Evan even at one point turns back around on him – is someone who we imagine is lonely and vies to be a part of what the others have when they come together. But he just never says so. They are all complicated, layered characters with their own troubles, their own histories and their own reasons for being who they are and although each of them play a part in the hurt others feel, you can’t wholly blame them for it when you know or think they have suffered and sometimes still do.

The staging of Dear Evan Hansen itself is simple yet technologically current to highlight the overwhelming and damning effect of the internet, social media and cyber bullying. The use of “live” streaming through laptops used by the actors was ingenious and the way voiceovers and images of the many other people out there who voice their opinions on the drama as it unfolds turned the on-stage cast of just eight into an online world that we are all familiar with.

The music is, given the show’s sombre themes, more upbeat and inspirational than you would have initially assumed. Even its darker songs are catchy, with pop-rock elements suitable for audiences of all ages and particularly those who are of similar ages to the younger cast, and show hints of character growth (Requiem) and windows of light (Disappear), despite their mostly sobering (Waving Through a Window) and pointed, angry lyrics (Good For You).

Above: The brilliant, Olivier award-winning Sam Tutty who usually plays the title role.

Of course, it’s the musical’s end of Act One song, You Will Be Found which is its most popular and soul-stirring. Although it sounds so very similar to many other songs – and one in particular I can never put a name to when I hear it – that address mental health and serve as attempts to raise the spirits of those who are listening to it, You Will Be Found is an anthem that speaks to everyone. Thoughts of musical redundancy aside, its lyrics of hope and resilience, its full-on gospel-like chorus at the climax and the context in which the song sits in the show make it an instantly loveable musical theatre classic.

Whether or not it changes how we perceive characters who make questionable decisions or divides opinions on the portrayal of those who have mental health problems, there’s one thing that Dear Evan Hansen does definitely try and do to those who watch it. It makes us feel so much more aware of those around us, especially those closest to us and those who at first we perhaps never gave a second thought to. And in line with this year’s theme of loneliness for Mental Health Awareness Week, it makes us take a step back and think what it feels like to be lonely or encourages others to know they don’t and shouldn’t have to be if they do.

And as a musical, similar to the success of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, it proves that sometimes new original shows could eventually rival the legacy of some of the classics.

Rating: 4/5

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