Theatre Review: Dear Evan Hansen (Noël Coward Theatre, London) ★★★★ 1/2

Dear Evan Hansen is probably the most anticipated Broadway-to-London transfer since Hamilton, and it’s finally here with a fresh-faced lead actor who bowled over critics and fans alike. For this show, today is definitely going to be a good day!

Teenager Evan Hansen suffers from severe social anxiety and writes encouraging letters to himself on the insistence of his therapist. “Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be a good day…” etc. Connor, the school loner and bully, finds one of the letters on a printer and takes it. When the letter is discovered in Connor’s pocket after he commits suicide, people assume it to be Connor’s final message, written to his “best friend” Evan. To try to ease the suffering of Connor’s family, Evan tells a lie that starts to spiral out of control.

Dear Evan Hansen is all about social pressure and the Internet, that mix of shallow connection and compounding isolation that social media brings. It says a lot about the pace of change that in the 3 years since DEH debuted the social media aspect is already starting to date – how many teenagers these days use Facebook that much (or even SnapChat, it’s moved onto private WhatsApp groups and TikTok… for now at least)? But that’s just the set-dressing, the heart of the story still rings harsh and true – when people want love/acceptance/connection, they justify all sorts of actions to get it.

So it’s a tricky balance, the characters of DEH are actually not very nice people! They’re teenagers without fully developed moral cores or much experience of the world – yet, through the wonders of technology, have the chance to fail on a global scale. Evan’s “family friend” Jared (played to hilarious brilliance by newcomer Jack Loxton) happily extorts Evan, their school-mate Alana (Nicole Raquel Dennis) is the worst kind of fake, social-media virtue-signaller. As Evan’s lies compound, he gets closer to the things he really wants, but thanks to the Internet the cost of failure rises to potentially future-destroying levels.

Sam Tutty. Photo © Matt Crockett for Dewynters

The reason we care for Evan so much despite his actions is down to the terrific score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (with book by Steven Levenson) and the stunning lead performance by newcomer Sam Tutty.

As The Greatest Showman proved, Pasek & Paul’s songs can rescue even the shoddiest script, and here they’re working with their own great, original story. These are pop/rock hits with hooky melodies that don’t let go. It’s no wonder they’ve already become YouTube and cabaret staples. Great musical theatre songs drive home the big emotions and these ones really get to the heart of Evan’s plight. He’s a good kid, making bad decisions… you just hope they find a way to end things well.

The show’s finale has come in for some criticism. No spoilers here, but I have no problem with the ending. Feel free to sound off in the comments (with a spoiler warning) if you want, but it’s nice to see adults behaving like adults and giving kids some grace and room to grow.

The casting process for DEH was rumoured to have been exhaustive (a massive open call followed by endless rounds of auditions). In the end, the role went to 21 year old recent drama school graduate Sam Tutty, making his professional debut (he previously appeared in a fringe, youth production of Once On This Island and turned heads). Like almost every actor his age in London, he’d already performed a rendition of ‘Waving Through A Window’ while at college.

Tutty brings an open-faced innocence to Evan, he truly looks like a good kid who is caught out of his depth. This is a fantastic debut for any actor and Tutty not only nails the vocals, but more importantly acts the **** out of the role. His wide-eyed tears could be seen from the back of the balcony. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s turning into something of a teen-heartthrob for the theatre crowd – Dear Evan Handsome!

London’s been making of habit of throwing very fresh faces up on stage in major roles, and it seems to be speeding up. Actors like Jamael Westman (Hamilton) and Charlie Stemp (Half a Sixpence) may have only had one or two professional roles under their belt before headlining a West End blockbuster, but this year alone we’ve had Tutty and Jac Yarrow (Joseph and the Amazing, Technicolour Dreamcoat) walk out of drama school and onto our biggest stages. To misquote a line from Absolutely Fabulous, “If the lead actors get any younger, Pats, they’ll be chucking fetuses on the stage.”

And the whole cast are spot on, including a number of other professional debuts. For some inexplicable reason, London still hasn’t had a production of Next To Normal, but if we do I’d like this whole cast ported over to that show too – thanks in advance.

Dear Evan Hansen feels like it was genetically engineered in a lab to make sure you cry. The core message “You will be found” cuts through the noise to a genuine modern-day issue confronting us – the loss of connection in an over-populated, noisey, busy world. So while the trappings of the show may age quickly, the music will be around for a long time to come.

By Chad Armstrong

Dear Evan Hansen plays at the Noël Coward Theatre, London and is currently booking till May 2020.

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