Review - Dear Evan Hansen at the Noel Coward Theatre
Everybody's Talking About Jamie has just celebrated its 2nd birthday in the West End, a joyous musical about a British teenager embracing and asserting his gay drag identity at a Sheffield school at which he defiantly and unapologetically decides to go to his end of year prom in a dress. But now everybody will also be talking about Evan Hansen, another teenager at the centre of a musical, but this one's American and far more emotionally insecure.
If Jamie, as both a show and a character, has a refreshing openness of spirit and blissfully defiant lack of apology, Dear Evan Hansen has a more earnest sincerity that may be initially cloying to British appetites, as it follows its title character who finds himself, unwittingly at first but then in a scheme that rapidly accelerates out of control, heralded as the best friend of a passing acquaintance at school who has committed suicide. He finds himself trapped in a lie, told initially with the good intention of comforting the boy's bereaved parents, but which soon takes on a life of its own as he needs to produce evidence of their relationship and a memorial campaign in honour of the lost schoolmate is launched.
But if it feels a bit manipulative in more ways than one, that may be entirely intentional: it also 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. What is apparently healing becomes unwittingly sinister.
It's not just a musical for the social media age but also puts its alternately productive and pernicious effects on full display. As such, it could not be more welcome. #YouWillBeFound is the hashtag behind the promotion of mental health awareness in the show, and the show itself is now finally to be found in the West End, three years after its 2016 Broadway premiere that saw the show win the 2017 Tony Award for Best Musical (along with five other wins) and where it is still running.
In the stunningly slick and sleek production that has arrived at the Noel Coward Theatre, the show has also found and will make a new star of recent Italia Conti graduate Sam Tutty in the title role. Just as Jac Yarrow last summer graduated from ArtsEd to take the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium (and who has now been announced will reprise it next summer), Tutty is another discovery, who pulls off the rare trick of projecting adolescent angst and insecurity with paradoxically confident ease. With his strawberry blonde hair and slight physical bearing, he embodies a nerdy character (far more successfully, in fact, that Ben Platt who originated the role on Broadway). There's a truthfulness to his acting - and a robust singing voice - that makes him feel utterly authentic and intensely moving.
There's lovely complementary work from Rebecca McKinnis as his struggling single mother, with Lauren Ward, Rupert Young and Lucy Anderson as the parents and sister of Connor Murphy, the boy who has committed suicide. As in Next to Normal (also coincidentally directed by Michael Greif), the 2009 Broadway musical still unseen over here, that deceased son has a continuing dominant presence here; as played by Doug Colling, he has a haunting effect in every sense. There are also suitably obnoxious contributions from Jack Loxton and Nicole Raquel Dennis as Evan's classmates who play key roles in assisting him and promoting the campaign.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's beautiful score may be a little ballad-heavy, but has integrity and depth that matches the story they have to tell, whose book is written by Steven Levenson. An onstage band, on the upper level of the set stage right, under the musical direction of Matt Smith, provides sumptuous accompaniment; there's particularly fine guitar playing from Tom Coppin and Mark Wraith.
Just recently Florian Zeller's The Son played just down the street at the Duke of York's that offered another shattering account of a teen suicide; Dear Evan Hansen will reach an even bigger audience, and its impact will resonate, hopefully far beyond the theatre's walls.
Dear Evan Hansen tickets are available now.