Mark Ludmon enjoys a few surprises at Dear Evan Hansen in London’s West End
Dear Evan Hansen
Noël Coward Theatre, London
With six Tony Awards and a Broadway run about to enter its fourth year, Dear Evan Hansen has built up a lot of anticipation ahead of its West End premiere. Several of its songs have become show tune hits, a film version is in pre-production and the book adaptation remains high in the bestseller lists. With the same director and design but a new cast at the Noël Coward Theatre, the musical lives up to all its promise, delivering a compelling story with powerful, memorable songs.
As someone who knows Dear Evan Hansen only from its Broadway cast recording, the production brought me plenty of surprises. Avoiding major spoilers, I knew it revolved around the fall-out from a teenage suicide but the pain and heartache are balanced by unexpected comedy. It could have been one long emotional howl but, under director Michael Greif, it has a restraint that pulls it back from sentimentality, including the soaring ballads of loneliness and disconnection, “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found”. Much of this is down to Sam Tutty as Evan whose cleverly nuanced performance is full of subtlety and wit, embodying the twitchy angst of a troubled teen who just wants to fold in on himself and disappear.
Another surprise is that the story, written by Steven Levenson, is not just about the sense of disconnection felt by teens but also the struggle of parents and children to understand each other. While younger people may engage more with Evan and his friends, this is also the story of his mum Heidi, abandoned by her husband to bring up a child on her own, and the story of the parents of the boy who kills himself. They have their own power ballads, from the opening cry of “Anybody Have a Map?” which will resonate with anyone trying to navigate parenthood.
The impact of social media is at the heart of the drama, reflected by the backdrop of laptop and phone screens displaying a constant stream of posts and messages, designed by David Korins with projection by Peter Nigrini. But the show stops short of attacking the tyranny of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook or Messenger, instead exploring how it seeps into every aspects of young people’s lives, tackling it with compassion and intelligence.
Another surprise is that this big musical theatre hit is told by a cast of only eight, giving it intimacy and focus. Jack Loxton is funny and engaging as Evan’s tech-savvy “family friend” Jared and Nicole Raquel Dennis is impressive as intensely driven student Alana while Doug Colling and Lucy Anderson are also engaging as Connor and Zoe. Rebecca McKinnis, Lauren Ward and Rupert Young are also excellent as the children’s parents, just as lost as the younger generation.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics beautifully weave through the story, with many of the hits such as “For Forever” and “You Will Be Found” acquiring complicated layers of meaning that are not apparent out of context on a cast recording. The music enhances the complex emotions played out within the story, building up to a crescendo of hope that many of us need right now.
Booking to 2 May 2020 at Noel Coward Theatre