Does Dear Evan Hansen Live Up to the Hype?
This time last year, the hottest ticket on Broadway was "Dear Evan Hansen". It made a sweep at the Tony's, including Ben Platt's resounding victory for Best Lead Actor. That was around the time that I started kicking myself for not getting tickets when Dear Evan Hansen was in the baby stages of popularity back in December. It took us a calendar year, but this Father's Day we went into New York to see a show somewhat based around absentee fathers. Yay!
Of course, Ben Platt is long gone, resting for the next decade after putting on one of the most physically taxing performances in a long time, while taking literally no days off. Instead, we saw Taylor Trensch as Evan Hansen, but a lot of the original cast, including Laura Dreyfuss and Rachel Bey Jones are still on. After waiting a full year to see it, there's one question: does it live up to the hype?
The simple answer is yes. The more complicated answer is yes, mostly.
Let's get something out of the way. Trensch is incredibly talented and wonderful in this role. But he's not Ben Platt. There has rarely been a time where I saw an understudy or replacement and didn't think they were just as good, if not better, than the original cast member. Platt is special, though. He was meant to play this role, and found something so special within it. Trensch has no problem with the technical or making it sound beautiful, though they have seem to cut down on the more physically demanding aspects, but he doesn't take it to that next level. He still has to cry while singing, which anyone who's ever been trained will tell you is so hard, and embody this neurotic yet charming character. He does a great job. In a vacuum, it was an excellent performance, but I couldn't help comparing him to Platt. Which is my own fault, but not something I think is remotely unique.
Most musicals, and movies, and TV shows try their damnedest to avoid becoming outdated too quickly. They don't want to have too much reliance on the technology of the time because it puts a giant date stamp on it. That's becoming harder and harder as that technology becomes more integrated with our lives. It's no longer Tess in "Oceans 11" saying "I don't own a cell phone" and me laughing out loud, social media and the tiny computers we carry in our pockets are central to our lives. In "Dear Evan Hansen", they're also central to the story. This will inevitably make it out of date by 2020. But, it also beautifully captures right now in a way that is powerful. The only work that I've seen similar in this nature is Mr. Robot (which I'll be reviewing soon!). By placing the technology at the core of the story, what we create is a period piece about 2017. This is where Dear Evan Hansen finds its wings, in the ability to show the connection and isolation of technology all at once.
Second to only that is its portrayal of social anxiety and mental illness. We happened to see it at a powerful time for me. A year ago, I would never have said I have anxiety and depression, not necessarily because of shame, but because I didn't have the right words. The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are fresh in my mind. "Dear Evan Hansen" is delicate with it's portrayal, there are no on-stage suicides or talk of self-harm. Instead, it focuses on capturing that feeling of being alone, even if you're not. We see the whole thing through Evan's eyes, there are rarely moments he's not on stage. I read it as Evan being the narrator, but more importantly, an unreliable narrator. This must be true because that's part of what depression does. It lies to you. It tells you that everyone has their backs to you and no one can see you or hear you when you speak. The stage direction shows this literally in "Waving Through a Window," which could not more perfectly describe the way depression feels.
Dear Evan Hansen is sad, certainly. The scene following the climax of the drama, Rachel Bay Jones as Heidi Hansen tells Evan about feeling so alone after his father left. I was a mess. Not that it's hard to make me cry, I did cry during the ending of "Deadpool 2" after all. Still, it so beautifully shows how we all feel alone and we all feel alone in feeling alone, but we're not. Ultimately, that's the message of "Dear Evan Hansen" and what makes it so much more than just a sad story about a sad teenager. Ever character in the cast represents that in one way or another, they're not just serving the plot. Even Jared, Evan's "family friend" who is cruel to him and everyone he interacts with on stage, is shown to be so very lonely. We see how that pain can manifest in different ways, each one more destructive than the last.
I judge a musical on its reprises, I believe them to be the greatest weapon in that arsenal. "Dear Evan Hansen" sprinkles them in masterfully. In the end, we come back to some of those familiar notes, but with a new sense of hope. It's not a perfect wrap-up ending, there are loose ends as there are in life, but Evan has moved forward. So have we.