Review: Dear Evan Hansen tackles difficult issues with overwhelming intensity

Mirvish production of the Tony Award-winning musical about a social outcast who becomes an online hero is a highly effective YA fantasy


DEAR EVAN HANSEN by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Steven Levenson (Stacey Mindich/David Mirvish). At the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King West). Runs to July 21. $59-$250, stu rush $25. 416-872-1212. See listing. Rating: NNNN


Who hasn’t at some point in their life felt insecure, broken and unworthy of love? The Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen exploits that fact effectively, even though it leaves a bit of a nasty aftertaste.

Evan (Robert Markus) is a painfully shy and awkward 17-year-old entering his final year of high school. He lives with his overworked single mom, Heidi (Jessica Sherman), has no friends except Jared (Alessandro Costantini), who’s got some sort of family connection, and is secretly in love with the popular Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle). 

After a mix-up too elaborate to explain (or spoil) here, Evan becomes associated with a teen tragedy, and quickly finds himself gaining in social status. He suddenly finds friends, love and a nurturing substitute family – even though it’s all built on a lie.

The story is pure young adult fantasy – no wonder a lyric from one of the show’s songs became the title for a decent YA novel last year called What If It’s Us. But it’s given lots of layers in Steven Levenson’s complex book and emotionally engaging songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It’s no surprise that a couple of catchy numbers have already become emo anthems.

What’s jarring is that so much of the show is bleakly cynical. When Evan becomes popular, his friends, including Jared and classmate Alana (Shakura Dickson), are little more than opportunists. On social media, people co-opt the central tragedy and make it all about themselves, or turn self-righteous on a dime.

This contradicts the feeling of redemption, forgiveness and we’re-all-in-this-together-empathy that the show tries so hard to sell. 

What the musical does offer, however, is a serious look at mental illness and a very moving example of a mother’s love for her sensitive son. And these come across beautifully in performances of almost overwhelming intensity. 

Markus fully inhabits Evan, his eyes downcast, his voice pitched high when he’s especially nervous and his defeated posture evoking his inner conflicts. He handles the show’s huge vocal demands with ease and, judging from the tears streaming down his face in a couple of songs, connects with the story’s emotional arc as much as we do.

Sherman brings enormous heart to the part of his overtaxed mother, especially in the show’s final few scenes where we glimpse moments from the pair’s past and understand their difficult present. 

Director Michael Greif heightens the drama in even the most banal exchange, such as a scene between Evan and Zoe’s father, Larry (Evan Buliung) involving a baseball glove. And David Korins’s set design and Peter Nigrin’s projections help illustrate the frenetic world of social media as the story plays out.

There are a few plot holes, and a couple of lyrics and song titles seem off – for instance, three characters sing about a requiem, a word I doubt any of them would use. 

But you’ll be too busy wiping away tears to care about small details like that.

@glennsumi

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