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Good theatre isn’t just about what’s happening on the stage: it’s about pushing the audience to question its own perceptions and reactions. For example, watching opening night of Dear Evan Hansen at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre last night, one of a handful of blockbuster hits parading through town as part of Broadway Across Canada, I was able to look inside myself during a particularly soaring musical solo by the protagonist’s mom and think, “Am I dead inside?”
At a play about (spoiler) teen suicide, finding yourself the lone dry-eyed person in the audience is a little worrisome, especially when the New York Times calls it “a gorgeous musical for anyone with a beating heart.” To my right, my mom was tearing up during the heart-wrenching finale numbers; to my left, my boss was also getting misty. (Oh, you don’t attend theatrical performances cozily tucked between your employer and your parent? Well, then.) Why couldn’t I just lean into the sentimentality and get a good cry going on a Tuesday night? It is objectively a tender, emotional show, one that people truly love—it won both a Tony and Grammy for Best Musical in its debut year, and the music is beautiful.
Instead of digging too deep into my inability to quote-unquote “feel,” I’m going to blame my stunted emotional reaction on the fact I was too busy being impressed at the technical precision happening on stage. Understudy Sam Primack (not pictured) stepped into the lead role as Evan Hansen, a socially anxious teenager who finds himself caught up in a wild lie after a classmate takes his own life, and pulled off the impressive feat of being a charming and confident leading man whilst playing a character endowed with zero charisma. The singing in this show was fantastic—you’d better believe I was grooving to the angstily pretty “Waving Through a Window” on my commute to work—and though I was a little bummed there were no big dance numbers, I understand why there wasn’t. Distorted projections made up the set design, a neat trick that offered an intriguing interpretation of the overwhelming digital landscape of adolescence. (Apparently clever production design is what it takes gets my heart pounding.)
The second half dropped the darkly comic moments of the first act to lean into an aching sentimentality, which is where the show lost my attention but won the hearts of everyone else. I’m a Little Shop of Horrors kinda gal, what can I say? I like my song-and-dance numbers without any infusion of morality, apparently. But while I do some digging into why I can’t just lean into an nice emotional swoon for a fictional troubled teen (note to my therapist: please call me), why don’t you take the tears of my fellow audience members (mother and manager included) as the real endorsement?
Dear Evan Hansen runs Feb. 26 through March 1 at the QE Theatre.$25 tickets are available via draw, or grab your seats here.