September 26, 2021

Review: “Dear Evan Hansen” Brings Broadway to Cinema, with Mixed Results

There are certain things that are meant to be seen on the stage. Some of these translate very well to the screen — Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors are prime examples — but unfortunately, Dear Evan Hansen isn’t one of them.

I've seen the stage play twice, and I’ve loved it both times. Upon its release, it received praise from critics and audiences alike for being an emotional, empathetic tale about growing up, facing the truth and the value of family — some very strong themes, that by all means should translate very well into any medium.

The film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen brings original Broadway star Ben Platt back as the titular lead, and yes, it’s as jarring as you’ve heard. Platt is a 28-year-old playing a high school student, and that was all I could think about most of the time he was on screen. The aged-down makeup, involving some curly hair to disguise his age, is only partially successful, and it can be distracting. It doesn’t detract from his performance in any way, though — Platt is still the best part of the film, from his stellar vocals to his heartbreaking performance as a teenager struggling with deep-set (if at times stylized) anxiety.

He, of course, plays Evan Hansen, who begins his senior year of high school as a shy, nervous wreck. Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), another loner, finds a note Evan wrote to himself for a therapy project and takes it home with him. The next day — intensity alert — Evan finds out that Connor committed suicide, and Connor’s parents believe that he wrote the note to Evan. Terrified to let them down, Evan pretends he and Connor were best friends, and the lie eventually builds upon itself until it begins to spiral out of control.

It’s a brilliant ethical dilemma, and one that lends itself very nicely to the core message of the film — the truth will always come out. The emotion and tone of the play are present in the film, but some things are just better on stage. The pacing and the jokes that Dear Evan Hansen borrows from its Broadway counterpart work better in a live performance setting rather than a film that’s over two hours, tryin to cram as much as it can into that runtime.

Aside from cutting two of the best songs from the stage version, Dear Evan Hansen is guilty of making its energetic musical numbers completely static. Gone are the “musical numbers” of ye olden days; Dear Evan Hansen opts for more grounded songs, most featuring characters sitting in chairs and staring at each other while they sing. They are going for a more ‘realistic’ aspect, but it doesn’t quite work out how they might think it does. Instead of making a big impression, the songs become very unmemorable — a shame considering how many incredible songs carried over from the play!

I feel I should point out that none of this is the fault of the actors. Aside from Platt, we’re treated to really solid performances from Amy Adams, Julianne Moore (playing the mothers of Connor and Evan), Amandla Stenberg (playing Evan’s friend Alana) and Kaitlyn Dever (who is always a delight to see; she plays Connor’s sister Zoe). In fact, Stenberg contributes an original song to the film, both in lyrics and in performance, one of the few musical scenes that actually tries to go big with its presentation.

This is definitely not the way to go for first exposure to Dear Evan Hansen. I can appreciate the attempt to bring the Broadway show into the easily accessible public eye (and it’s a strong effort!), but I don’t think it had enough going for it to pull off what it was trying to do. Because of my recognition and recollection of the play, I feel I enjoyed it more than others, but perhaps it’s me looking through the rose-colored glasses of the stage production.

Whatever it may be, Dear Evan Hansen is a commendable, but ultimately flawed, recreation of the Broadway sensation. Be warned, though: when the emotion hits, it really hits. [Grade: B-]

Director: Stephen Chbosky
Writers: Steven Levenson
Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive reference
Available: Theaters
Fun Fact: The musical's ending was altered for this film to, according to Ben Platt, “make Evan more accountable for his actions than he was on stage.”

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