It’s here. After what seems like an eternity of anticipation, Dear Evan Hansen has opened in the West End. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s musical scooped up six Tony Awards and a Grammy when it premiered on Broadway in 2016, and its transatlantic trip – it’s at the Noel Coward Theatre, booking until May – has been a long time coming.
With music and lyrics by Pasek and Paul – the dynamic duo behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman – and a book by Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of a lonely American adolescent, suffering from anxiety and depression, who seeks social acceptance by fabricating a friendship with a classmate – Connor – who commits suicide.
Notably, the show has steered clear of casting stars: the lead roles are largely taken by recent graduates. Sam Tutty, an alumnus of Italia Conti, plays protagonist Evan, alongside fellow West End debutants Lucy Anderson, Doug Colling and Marcus Harman. They are joined by established actors Rebecca McKinnis and Lauren Ward.
But will this Tony-winning, transatlantic tour-de-force triumph in London? Will Pasek and Paul’s project prove popular with British critics? Will Tutty, Anderson et al. impress on debut?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The plot of Dear Evan Hansen – about an awkward teenager accidentally finding himself at the centre of a social media-induced storm of sympathy, then making the most of it – is actually inspired by real life: Pasek witnessed something similar at his own high school. And, say most critics, it’s a touching tale.
“Dear Evan Hansen channels the dark, churning adolescent angst of shows like Heathers and Spring Awakening, but brings it up to date,” writes Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★). “It takes that angst seriously, asking questions about mental health, about connection and isolation among teenagers today, and ends up being as overwhelming and complicated as adolescence itself.”
Plenty agree. For Clive Davis (Times, ★★★★) it’s “courageous and often witty”, for Marianka Swain (TheArtsDesk, ★★★★) it’s “far-reaching and pertinent”, for Frey Kwa Hawking (Exeunt) “the ride the musical takes you on is at once earnest, funny and horrific,” and for Alex Wood (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★), it’s “a desperately powerful exploration of a troubled teen sacrificing the truth for a sense of comfort” that’s “startlingly relevant in a world swaddled in screens and fleeting fictions.”
Some reviewers are unconvinced. Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★★) doesn’t like its “slightly icky undertone”, while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) finds the whole thing “supremely calculated” and Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) complains that the story isn’t followed “to its logical conclusion”, instead building towards “the statutory uplift demanded of the musical.”
Okay, says Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★), “it feels a bit manipulative in more ways than one”, but it “dares to tackle the subject of teenage suicide head-on, and how the victim’s classmates both manipulate and are manipulated by social media to their own ends.”
“It’s not just a musical for the social media age, but also puts its alternately productive and pernicious effects on full display,” he contends. “As such, it could not be more welcome.”
Alongside Levenson, Pasek and Paul, Dear Evan Hansen has a crack team of creatives. It’s directed by four-time Tony nominee Michael Greif, designed by Hamilton’s David Korins, and orchestrated by musical maestro Alex Lacamoire. But are the score and the set up to scratch?
The majority of reviewers rate the songs. They’re “wonderful” for Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★) and “propulsive” for Davis. “As shown in The Greatest Showman, Pasek and Paul have cracked the formula for four-chord pop songs; songs with a golden touch that means they’ll be audition numbers for the rest of time,” writes Bano.
There are some slight niggles – John Nathan (Metro, ★★★) notes that “nearly every number comes from a similar angst-filled emotion” and Curtis complains that they are “surprisingly jaunty given the subject matter” – but most agree with Shenton. Pasek and Paul’s “beautiful” score “may be a little ballad-heavy,” he writes, but it “has integrity and depth that matches the story they have to tell.”
Korins’ set – in which “translucent panels show screenshots of tweets, Facebook posts and messages like shrapnel, all surrounded by a black void,” as Bano describes it, is pleasingly “kaleidoscopic” according to Billington, and allows the show to be “couched in a world of digital hysteria” according to Wood.
Greif’s direction, meanwhile, is “swift and sensitive” for Billington, “leavened with both sharp, satirical wit and silliness” but with a “winning earnestness” for Swain, and “desperately, torturously uncomfortable at times, while other moments shimmer with genuine pathos” for Wood.
It’s rare for such a high-profile, big-budget show to have so few stars attached. Rebecca McKinnis and Lauren Ward are notable names, but the rest of the cast – Sam Tutty, Lucy Anderson, Doug Colling and Marcus Harmon – untried and untested in the West End.
In Tutty, it seems a star is born. His Evan is “utterly authentic and intensely moving” according to Shenton, “startlingly raw and convincing” according to Curtis, and “one of the performances of the year” according to Nathan. “His Evan is a tight, jittery knot of anxiety, embarrassed by his own existence, looking the whole time like he wishes the world would swallow him up,” describes Bano. “His panicky, rabbit-headlights expression never leaves his pale face, and he fiddles with his fingers and shirt buttons like he’s surprised he’s got limbs and isn’t sure what to do with them.”
“Paradoxically, he conveys a lack of certainty with complete technical assurance and, when it comes to his solo numbers, proves he can really sing,” agrees Billington. It is, says Davis, a “superb” performance.
Elsewhere, there’s particular praise for fellow newcomer Lucy Anderson as Evan’s love interest Zoe – she’s “excellent” according to Nathan and Taylor, and conveys a fine “emotional wariness” according to Billington – and for McKinnis, playing Evan’s mother: she “skilfully brings out the mixed-up emotions of the situation,” says Bano.
Of course, it is. A show doesn’t get six Tony Awards without having something to shout about, and Dear Evan Hansen has got plenty. The powerful plot admirably addresses the awkward topic of teenage suicide in the age of social media, the score soars, the direction is deft, and Sam Tutty’s central performance is superb.
A few minor moans – about the story being too schematic and the songs too samey – mean that there are more four-star reviews than fives, but make no mistake, Dear Evan Hansen has made a success of its long overdue leap from Broadway to the West End.