Mirvish opens the first Canadian production of the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen in Toronto
Last night, Mirvish opened the first international production of Dear Evan Hansen, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the writing duo behind the songs in the films La La Land and The Greatest Showman) and book by playwright Steven Levenson. The show became a runaway hit and this new production, featuring a Canadian cast, is now playing at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Dear Evan Hansen is set against the backdrop of the social media age—quite literally thanks to the sleekly-executed set design by David Korins which employs multiple screens floating throughout a black void and features projections (designed by Peter Nigrini) emulating the relentless stream of information on social media.
Perhaps that sense of relevance is what makes the show so popular with younger audiences; although I’m sure Pasek and Paul’s songs written using a familiar, contemporary pop music vernacular, and the story centred on a teenaged protagonist help.
Evan Hansen (Robert Markus) is an awkward, lonely and isolated seventeen year-old who struggles with intense social anxiety. After his classmate, Connor Murphy (Sean Patrick Dolan), dies by suicide, a misunderstanding leads Connor’s parents to believe that he had addressed his suicide note to Evan. To comfort the boy’s grieving parents, Evan misleads them into believing that he and Connor were secretly best friends.
That little white lie quickly blows up and soon Evan finds himself spinning a complex web of deceit—allowing him to take advantage of the tragedy to attain viral social media fame and a relationship with Connor’s sister—until it all spirals out of control.
Initially, I was a bit unsure about the show. The plot sounds like something out of a middling Netflix Original miniseries; it treats the topic of teen suicide superficially, using it as a plot device, while centring the narrative on a relatively privileged white guy whose problems are almost entirely of his own making.
But I was surprised how quickly the character of Evan Hansen disarmed me. His spoken dialogue is stilted, halting and painfully awkward but when he sings, he is lucid and vividly expressive. The songs in Dear Evan Hansen have this uncanny ability to delve into the character’s psyche, revealing his deepest fears and desires, framing him in a sympathetic light.
By the end of Evan’s first song “Waving Through a Window,” in which he expresses his feelings of isolation and his desire to form a meaningful human connection, I suddenly remember exactly what it felt like to be a lonely, insecure, misunderstood teen.
Later, when Evan sings “For Forever,” a song about an idyllic, perfect day he imagines spending with a friend doing typical, mundane teenage boy things, it’s so heartbreakingly earnest that I find myself moved to the brink of tears… despite the fact that, in the context of the scene, he’s actually lying through his teeth to the family of a boy who died by suicide about a friendship they never actually shared.
That’s the trick the writers try to pull with this show. Evan Hansen is a textbook antihero: a deeply flawed character whose narrative is framed in a way that’s supposed to make the audience empathize with him and root for him despite his morally questionable behaviour.
The role of Evan Hansen is incredibly difficult but Stratford Festival alumnus Robert Markus rises to the challenge. Markus has a sweet and gorgeously expressive singing voice but perhaps more importantly, he acts the part brilliantly. He perfectly embodies Evan’s nervous tics, awkwardly stilted speech and frenetic teen energy but centres his performance on the character’s emotional core so Evan feels authentic; nothing about his performance feels exaggerated, no big, gut-wrenching emotional moment feels unearned.
Markus is matched by a consistently strong ensemble but it was Jessica Sherman as Heidi, Evan’s struggling single mom, who truly broke my heart with her Act 2 number “So Big/So Small.”
In the end, I really enjoyed Dear Evan Hansen but it also left me conflicted. The plot centres on Evan’s deception and whenever I found myself empathizing with him I was troubled by the implications. We live in an era of disinformation and “fake news” where facts don’t seem to matter as long as something makes you feel the way you want so I couldn’t fully emotionally invest in the character despite his lies because my rational, critical brain was trying to protect me from being emotionally manipulated.
I think viewing the show through that critical lens is interesting and valuable in and of itself so whether you see Dear Evan Hansen as a cautionary tale for the social media age or you go to unabashedly experience those big, emotional moments, this superbly executed production is well worth seeing.
- Dear Evan Hansen is playing an open-ended run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King Street West), currently on sale through June 30, 2019.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., and Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 p.m., OPEN CAPTIONED PERFORMANCE: Sunday, June 9, 2019
- Tickets $59.00 to $159.00, Student Rush Tickets available for $25
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Royal Alexandra Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of Robert Markus, Evan Buliung, Claire Rankin and Stephanie La Rochelle by Matthew Murphy