Theatre Review: Dear Toronto, Evan Hansen’s Here

Theatre Review: Dear Toronto, Evan Hansen’s Here
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About the Author

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins is a thespian and performer who has worked with theatre, film, and TV across Ontario. He comes from Campbellton, NB, and has lived in North Oakville over 20 years. He is a graduate of Journalism from Sheridan College. Twitter: @MrTyCollins

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It’s pretty rare Toronto produces its own full-on musical blockbuster. Now there’s someone new in the city’s downtown theatre scene, and the dear Evan Hansen is here with something to (reluctantly say.) And by golly is he worth a listen.

The emotionally charged new musical comes in the first resident production following its ludicrously popular 2016 premiere in New York. Dear Evan Hansen’s writing may not be a complete masterpiece, but Mirvish’s new production is as close as it gets.

Sure, several high profile tours bring the latest offerings from Broadway several times a year, but they rarely stay more than a month. Those companies pale in comparison to the slickness and detail Michael Grief has infused across the stage.

What’s also interesting is the Broadway production, still going strong, is neighbours with Come From Away. Not only do they play across 45th street near Times Square, they now share Toronto as a permanent home. Following their colossal debacle at the 2017 Tony Awards (which DEH won,) they now co-exist just a few blocks away.

What a fascinating history for these two titans of modern music theatre. It’s remarkable to see how their successes remain closely intertwined.

The story centres on high school senior Evan Hansen. He begins a crummy first day of school with an assignment he doesn’t want to do and a cast on his arm nobody wants to sign. But when a letter he writes to himself is misplaced, an upsetting misunderstanding threatens to change Evan’s life forever.

Describing the plot anymore risks giving away any of the serious twists that make the story so gripping. That excitement is intensified for those unfamiliar with the show. But some famous elements include an orchard visit, family dinners, fake emails and the tragedy of a suicide from one of Evan’s classmates.

Photo: Mirvish Productions

While the story’s secrecy contributes to the play’s wow factor more than other shows like Come From Away, it’s certainly worth the payoff. The cathartic astonishment Dear Evan Hansen evokes is among the most satisfying of any modern musical.

The principal role of Evan Hansen has quickly become feared as one of the most difficult roles in music theatre. BC actor and Stratford veteran Robert Markus more than meets the challenge of the part, grounding the stage in a dazzling fashion.

Markus moves through a hurricane of emotions and tactics as he navigates Evan’s social disasters. He miraculously belts through 11 of the show’s 14 songs, and towards the end, sings while sobbing and convulsing. But his most beautifully watchable scene is 90 seconds of silence, holding our attention the entire time.

The part requires extraordinary stamina – so much so that Markus only does six performances each week. But he’s a marvel to see, and worth making a the effort to see him. It’s tough to find empathy in such an unlikeable character, but here we do.

Even though the show isn’t perfect, this production is unquestionably the best you will ever see.

Seven other actors join Markus in the company and they too are extremely talented. What becomes more noticeable over the first act is how well cast the ensemble is. Each actor suits their part frighteningly well, and with that comes a natural cohesion to the web of relationships between the characters.

That seamlessness does come at a price. Sean Patrick Dolan is clearly a baritone working hard to sing a tenor part. Claire Rankin is simply a weak singer. But they own their parts so well you forgive them within a minute.

Where the play’s weakness is most apparent is the music and lyrics from celebrated writers Pasek and Paul (better known for 2017’s The Greatest Showman.) The tunes are catchy, but several songs overuse choruses and expose the shallowness of many songs. Half the numbers suffer this problem.

The only reason the songs incorporate into the show is thanks to book writer Steven Levinson. When the integration is least obvious is layering dialogue through the dynamic pop music.

Photo: Mirvish Productions

But the glorious flourish that makes the production so memorable is the high-tech, social media inspired designs. These could be obnoxious and childish if done less tastefully, but colour, shape and light are expertly used to form the scary online world in which many of these characters live.

Those designs make perfect sense since the story’s moral is about abusing the speed of communicating online. That danger needs to be respected, especially on sensitive topics, and abusing that power can easily hurt those you love the most.

It’s difficult to describe how circular platforms, illuminated rectangles and spotlights, or even the sparse yet elegant furniture can get these ideas across. That’s the brilliance of Greif’s production. Even though the show isn’t perfect, this production is unquestionably the best you will ever see.

Many audience members came equipped with tissues in hand. They may not be needed for more seasoned theatregoers, but the teenagers in their target audience may benefit from ready Kleenex.

The audience response at key moments have the enthusiasm more like a rock concert than typical theatre. But no matter – it’s easy to become spellbound by the beauty of Evan’s digital world.

One final warning for those sitting the balcony – the extended black proscenium arch hides some upstage action. If you can afford the tickets, it may be best to sit on the first two floors to avoid missing anything.

For those lucky to get in the doors, today is going to be a good day. And here’s why: Dear Evan Hansen’s originality and desire for authenticity makes for a truly special night at the theatre rare in Toronto.

Dear Evan Hansen
3 1/2 out of 4 Stars

Rated 13+. 2hrs 35mins. Musical Drama.
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Book by Steven Levenson.
Directed by Michael Greif.

Starring Robert Markus as Evan Hansen (played by Zachary Noah Piser on Wednesday and Saturday matinee performances.) Also starring Jessica Sherman, Stephanie La Rochelle, Sean Patrick Dolan, Claire Rankin, Evan Buliung, Shakura Dickson and Alessandro Costantini.

Now Playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto, ON. Runs until June 30th, 2018. Tickets range $59-165. Student tickets available for $25. Tickets available online here or by calling 416-872-1212.

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