Stacey Mindich in association with David Mirvish present
DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Book by Steven Levenson
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Directed by Michael Greif
Scenic design by David Karina
Production design by Peter Nigrini
Costume design by Emily Rebholz
Lighting design by Japhy Weideman
Featuring Robert Markus, Stephanie La Rochelle, Jessica Sherman, Claire Rankin, Sean Patrick Dolan, Evan Buliung, Alessandro Costantini, Shakura Dickson, Zachary Noah Piser
Royal Alexandra Theatre
At the opening of Dear Evan Hansen, a young, anxiety ridden teenager sits on his bed with his laptop and begins to speak and sing tentatively to the audience. We see that he has a cast on his left forearm. We instinctively feel sympathy for the young man. Whatever he has done to get that cast on his arm must have been painful. Oh my. We have no idea the pain that Evan Hansen has been going through, physically as well as mentally, but we are about to find out.
Stories about teenage angst and alienation among young boys is nothing new. J.D. Salinger invented Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye as the archetype of singularly misunderstood, alienated, rebellious youth seeking to throw off the shackles of the phony adults who surround and repress him. More recently the ante is upped quite a bit with regard to dysfunctional-youth-as-outcast-outlier in stage projects such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Middle of the Night, Next to Normal, Fun Home and Be More Chill to name a few.
What is unique and fascinating in Dear Evan Hansen is the same story unfolding within the framework of the internet driven social media environment that young people are drawn to with such fervor today. It is a world into which they can escape and return with easy fluidity wherever they are physically in time and space, and remain as long as they desire speaking directly, or with email, texting, twitter, facebook, instagram, youtube (et al) with people they know and people they do not know, and perhaps should not know. They can create new worlds if they like and new friends who may be real or fictitious. Such is the brave new world that information technology has delivered to our doorsteps in the 21st century. The building blocks for this world have been put in place largely over the past three decades. The millennial generation, which makes up a good part of Dear Evan Hansen’s fan base, has never known anything else.
The story in Dear Evan Hansen centers around a teen age suicide in the high school that Evan attends and the discovery of a letter that was purportedly written to Evan by the disturbed young man who took his own life. We immediately want to know the how, what, where, when and why of this tragic event. We spend the next two and one half hours sorting out these details and other details that keep intruding on our consciousness while we are trying to concentrate on the play: teenage suicide as a growing statistic, rising faster in economically depressed and racialized communities than it is in the population at large; bullying and violence in our schools; mass murder committed in educational institutions, mosques, synagogues and churches; day to day tensions and stresses that seem to only multiply and never diminish; social divisions exploited for political gain and economic profit.
Dear Evan Hansen is the first musical about how young people deal with these stresses on the internet. Everything in the story, musical score and set design (excellent work here by Peter Nigrini) reflects this environment and it is extraordinary in this regard. When the musical first appeared off-Broadway in 2016, the Outer Critics Circle awarded librettist Steven Levenson outstanding book for a musical while passing on the music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (although the team won a Tony Award for Best Original Score when the show transferred to Broadway the following year). In truth the OCC was on to something. Although rare for a musical, it is the story contained in the libretto that drives this show.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” is a line from a poem by Sir Walter Scott and I won’t even begin to describe the complicated charge of unrelenting events that brings this story to its unresolved ending. Suffice it to say that in this well staged premiere of the show’s international tour after Broadway, our own Robert Markus excels with a tour-de-force performance in the role of Evan Hansen. This is high praise given that the young Ben Platt seemed to own the role when he was the talk of Broadway.
By the conclusion of the second act, we see that the cast has been removed from Evan’s arm and that he seems to be back to normal. Don’t let that fool you. It is the psychic trauma that lingers on well after the curtain falls.