A Tale of Two Families
Sometimes, you get caught up in other people’s assumptions, and you let a little white lie slip by. And then that little white lie grows and spreads, and pretty soon you are trapped within a big messy lie. That’s what happens in Dear Evan Hansen. High schoolers get wrapped up in the false narrative, which involves two families and breaks your heart. This show, now on stage at Toronto’s historic Royal Alexandra Theatre, was the big Tony winner on Broadway in 2017, beating out Come From Away for the best musical.
Dear Evan Hansen is a story of the bullied and the bully. Evan is a very unhappy, nerdy kid who struggles to make friends. Connor Murphy is a wretched bully, equally unhappy and friendless, bent on making everyone around him miserable. Connor takes his own life, and through a strange twist, everyone comes to believe that Evan and Connor were best friends. Connor’s parents are comforted by the idea that Connor had a friend, and they try to take Evan under their wing. The non-existent friendship gets blown out of proportion, and Evan gets caught up in the glory of being the dead kid’s only friend. Evan’s single mother is alarmed to learn about friendship she never knew existed. Since it’s all based on a lie, you know that it can’t end well for Evan.
Please note that the cast in Dear Evan Hansen is all-Canadian rather than an American or British touring show. It is refreshing to see Canadians we know in the cast and on the creative team, excelling in this powerful musical. As well, the fact that Mirvish has invested in a Canadian cast tells us that they expect this show to be extended beyond the June 30th date. The exterior of the Royal Alex has been painted blue to match the Dear Evan Hansen colours, so it appears Mirvish is expecting a hit that will stick around for a while.
Robert Markus is in the lead role of Evan. Markus is known as Riff-Raff in last year’s Stratford Festival hit The Rocky Horror Show. Earlier, he starred as Tommy in Tommy at Stratford Festival. He gives us a heartbreaking Evan, trying so hard to please his mother and his therapist that he eventually believes his own lies. Markus’ quirky, awkward movements create an abject character. He nails the powerful song “I’m Waving through a Window”. Playing Evan gives Markus the opportunity to demonstrate his amazing vocal range. In fact, the role is so vocally demanding that the alternate Zachary Noah Piser handles the role on Wednesday and Saturday matinees.
The high school students are all well cast. Sean Patrick Dolan gives us an intimidating Connor, who is, at the same time, pitiable. Dolan manages to come back as Connor in Evan’s imagination without being a caricature. Alessandro Costantini is perfect as Jared, Evan’s only friend, who is quick to point out he’s not a real friend, just a family friend. Costantini has just the right amount of sass and attitude to keep us liking Jared and making him an interesting kid. Zoe, Connor’s sister and Evan’s secret crush, is played with great emotion by Stephanie LaRochelle. Shakura Dickson is excellent as the overly exuberant classmate Alana.
Jessica Sherman as Evan’s mother, Heidi, gives us a worried woman whose stress is palpable. Her song “So Big/So Small”, describing the consequences of an absent husband and father is heartbreaking. Similarly, Claire Rankin gives us Connor’s grieving mother, Cynthia. Evan Buliung as Connor’s father, Larry, is a stoic, angry dad. There is chemistry between the two, as they eventually put their anger aside.
There are prerecorded background singers used in this production. Reading the list of these “Virtual Community Voices” is fascinating. Like the cast, the background voices are all-Canadian, but these are big stars, many of whom are currently working on Broadway!
While there is grief throughout this musical, the small sparks of hope, in song and in dialogue, both real and imagined, make it very compelling. Any parents of teenagers or parents who have raised teenagers, both the bullies and the bullied, will feel the hurt and heartache of this poignant story.
Dear Evan Hansen continues with eight shows a week at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W., Toronto, Ontario until June 30 or may be extended. (Now extended to July 21) Call TicketKing 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit www.mirvish.com for tickets.
Photo: Right: Cast of Dear Evan Hansen. Left: Robert Markus, Evan Buliung, Claire Rankin and Stephanie La Rochelle. Photos by Matthew Murphy.
Dear Evan Hansen
Book by Steven Levenson
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreographed by Danny Mefford
Musical Direction by Alex Lacamoire
Performed by Robert Markus, Stephanie LaRochelle, Jessica Sherman, Claire Rankin, Sean Patrick Dolan, Evan Buliung, Alessandro Costantini, Shakura Dickson, Zachary Noah Piser.
Produced by Stacey Mindich and David Mirvish
Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
March 5 to June 30, 2019 Extended to July 21.
Reviewed by Mary Alderson