Dear Evan Hansen at the Noël Coward Theatre - A Review

The long-awaited West End arrival of this noted sob-fest meets even the highest of expectations
Asking someone what 'Pasek & Paul' means to them is like a litmus test of the musical theatre fan. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriters more commonly known by their surnames alone, have had a busy few years.  Are they the composers of the songs in The Greatest Showman and the musical Dogfight? The lyricists from La La Land? The writers of several original songs from the 'hit' television series Smash? Any teen with a passing interest in musical theatre will tell you Pasek & Paul are synonymous with one show in particular.

Dear Evan Hansen, which features songs from Pasek & Paul, a book by Steven Levenson and direction by Michael Greif, is currently playing on Broadway, on a US national tour, in Toronto, and now in London. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who gets caught up in a misunderstanding that rapidly spirals out of control, touching on mental health, suicide, social media, loneliness, and fractured parent-child relationships.

The original production took Broadway by storm, making a star out of its leading man, Ben Platt, and netting six Tony Awards including Best Musical.

With radio-friendly tunes, a compelling teen-focused story and a Grammy-winning cast recording, Dear Evan Hansen quickly built up a dedicated fanbase across the globe. When open auditions were held for the London production, a queue of thousands of young hopefuls snaked around the streets of Soho on a rainy lunchtime, breaking out into impromptu performances of their favourite numbers in four part harmony.

All this is to say: expectations were sky high for the West End production of this beloved show, and it delivers on every front.

As the eponymous Evan, Sam Tutty, a recent Italia Conti grad, is a phenomenon. From the rapid-fire opening monologue he is rarely offstage. His portrayal of a teenager wracked with anxiety, is singular, specific and profoundly affecting. There are shades of Ben Platt in his mannerisms and gestures, but it is no empty impersonation; Tutty's Evan feels lived-in and whole, even just a handful of shows into the run. It is heartbreaking to watch him get increasingly caught up in an impossible situation, knowing it must all come crashing down. When the emotional unspooling happens it is physical, for both Tutty and the audience, many of whom were quietly (and not-so-quietly) sobbing along with him.

Sam Tutty (Evan Hansen), Rupert Young (Larry Murphy), Lauren Ward (Cynthia Murphy, Lucy Anderson (Zoe Murphy)  © Matthew Murphy

Rebecca McKinnis (as Evan's mother Heidi), Lauren Ward (Cynthia) and Rupert Young (Larry), give performances of depth and complexity, showing us flawed people struggling to parent their teenagers in the face of immense challenges. McKinnis in particular delivers some of the most powerful songs in a show stuffed to bursting with them. The younger cast, several of whom are making their West End debuts, bring their characters to life with the confidence of much more established performers. The role of Evan's love interest Zoe is slightly under-written but Lucy Anderson is pitch-perfect as a bereaved girl grappling with how to grieve someone whose legacy is complicated. Jack Loxton brings some much-needed comic relief - with a dark edge - to his portrayal of Jared, Evan's 'family friend'.

Like Netflix's Queer Eye, 'sobbing', 'tears' and 'phlegm' have become part of the conversation around Dear Evan Hansen. Stephen Colbert told Platt he "made me cry for two hours straight". Despite knowing this and knowing loosely what the show would be about, I still found myself surprised by how deeply moving it is. I was doing alright until the closing number of Act One when a desperate Evan - not really believing it - softly sang, "when you don't feel strong enough to stand, you can reach, reach out your hand". I slipped my hand into my mum's in the seat next to me and gave in to the inevitable.

This thoroughly earnest show could become unbearable as the piano-driven pop songs keep coming and the teens keep expertly emoting, if it weren't for the strength of its writing. Dear Evan Hansen offers no easy answers. Songs that could sound saccharine from the cast recording alone (we're looking at you, You Will Be Found) are given context that undercuts that possibility at every turn. There are no heroes or villains here, just a story of people trying their best and coming up short.

Dear Evan Hansen is a very modern musical. The internet is ever-present and all-consuming. Much of the drama is propelled by - and takes place on - social media, which is rendered with authentically anxiety-inducing accuracy by the scenic design of David Korins and the projections by Peter Nigrini. Starting from the startling 'please have your phones off' message before it begins, the show uses projections on every inch of the set, including the stage itself, to demonstrate how immersed we have all become. Much like how in Avenue Q you stop seeing them as puppets and puppeteers, it is immediately clear when we are watching online conversations take place. It has the added benefit of ensuring that everyone in the audience, all the way up to the top of the auditorium, feels drawn into the action, and that none of the minutiae of the emotional performances get lost.

Watching the characters get increasingly trapped in their circumstances, you may find yourself making a mental appointment at the interval for a shoulder massage to get those drama-induced knots out, but the genius of Levenson's book is never more apparent than in the understated way the story ends. By the time you're wiping away the snot and tears you'll have a calm glowing feeling in your stomach and a mental appointment to call someone you love.


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