Music Box Theatre, New York
The unique selling feature of a $200-a-ticket Broadway musical which sets it apart from our homemade West End ones is often a vast stage filled with 40 hoofers and a dozen ginormous sets. What makes Dear Evan Hansen so good and special is it has none of these.
Conceived before Benj Pasek and Justin Paul earned plaudits for their work on the dubious La La Land it marks an advance in both their own progress and that of the character-driven American musical. I hear echoes of Matilda and Next to Normal in the score, but never to the point that you could say this music wasn’t smartly original. The comparison with Next to Normal is interesting because there lies another superb contemporary musical that didn’t cross the pond.
And I don’t think Evan should. Not because it isn’t brilliant, but because we’ve done the marginalised-teenager-makes-good exhaustively with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
In a modern American folk tale, withdrawn high school senior Evan communicates better online from his darkened bedroom than in person. A self-motivating letter he’s asked to write to his psychotherapist is misinterpreted as a bully’s suicide note to his ‘best friend’ Evan, who transforms into Billy Liar inventing stories to please the people newly interested in him.
It’s delivered with economy and class, the music grows organically from situations whether it’s the scene-setting ‘Looking Through the Window’ or the first act closer ‘You Will Be Found’ which has become both an anthem for the teenage outsider, and a hashtag some have had tattooed on their inner arms.
Taylor Trensch now plays the title role, and he’s as fresh faced and fresh voiced a blend of youthful energy and awkwardness as you’ve never heard of. Evan is a character you could easily blend with a spell as Christopher Boone in Curious Incident and Barnaby Tucker in Hello, Dolly to forge a lasting Broadway career.
A refreshing feature of the score and musical direction is that the actors don’t often lurch into a ‘rock voice’ and sing a musical theatre score with musical theatre voices. Effortlessly, especially Trensch and Rachel Bay Jones as his mother, somewhat stereotyped as a single parent and nurse, and hampered with some predictable lines in Steven Levenson’s otherwise convincing book, and a straw wig that makes her look like Amanda Seyfried.
Evan’s a Holden Caulfield for the Snapchat generation, whose bad deeds go unpunished. That’s very refreshing for American fiction, let alone musical theatre.