By Lynn Venhaus
On stage, “Dear Evan Hansen” was a deeply personal and profoundly emotional experience, which the movie attempts to achieve through pared-down scenes that opt for intimacy.
When they ‘open up’ musical numbers just to expand the landscape, that’s when it becomes less effective. Those who connected with the musical because it struck a chord about belonging and understanding in a chaotic and often cruel social media age will find this a worthy adaptation.
Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) has a severe social anxiety disorder, and his therapist wants him to write a daily affirmation letter. Because the anti-social and angry young man Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) snatched the letter, it is found in his possession after he commits suicide. His grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) mistake it as one their troubled son wrote to his only friend and invite Evan to dinner. Instead of telling the truth and wanting to please, he keeps up the charade, which quickly spirals out of control. Suddenly, classmates who ignored him make him an internet star.
One drawback is that Evan’s self-deprecating humor, which worked so well on stage making the nerdy high school senior relatable, is missing.
The score, by golden boys Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, still resonates in a timely way, particularly after 18 months of dealing with a public health crisis that created even more distance between people.
While nothing can duplicate the live theater ‘feels,’ this adaptation has been thoughtfully crafted to tug at your heartstrings. I mean, how cynical do you have to be to resist sharing in the desire to matter?
The musical, which opened on Broadway in December 2016, won six of the nine Tony Awards it was nominated for in 2017, including Best Musical.
When I saw the national tour in November 2019 at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, I was a puddle, crying through most of it. I figured that the movie would provoke the ugly cry reprise, so I brought plenty of tissues along, and while I teared up through key moments, it wasn’t the waterworks that happened while discovering the stage musical. Perhaps I am now too familiar with the songs, but when Heidi (Julianne Moore) sings “So Big/So Small” (Everybody in the Fox audience could be heard sniffling through it) it’s heart-breaking, and Ben Platt’s voice just prompts eyes to tear up during the ballads.
Of course, when you first hear that everything is based on a lie, it’s a ‘wait – what?’ reaction, but because people are comforted by the tall tales, leading Evan on a journey of self-discovery, most do not get all judgy—instead, investing in the story.
There are those who think exploiting a tragedy for personal gain is abhorrent, but I can see how and why it went south – all those insecurities, the desperation driving the falsehoods/fantasy, that awareness of being an outcast. There are so many gray areas of life that can’t be sorted into black and white, and this is one of them.
Director Steven Chbosky, who knows how to genuinely portray adolescents after helming “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Wonder,” taps into those socially awkward misfit feelings many people share but think they’re alone.
Pasek and Paul’s heartfelt and aching songs have won Tonys, an Oscar (for “La La Land”), Grammys and Emmys, and still pack an emotional wallop – even if they are stripped down renditions. “You Will Be Found” is the signature song that never wears out its welcome, offering a beacon of light in uncertain times.
Much has been written criticizing casting 27-year-old Ben Platt as the geeky isolated teenager. After all, he originated the role on Broadway, winning a Tony Award and much acclaim. This role is in his DNA, and he captures the emotional roller-coaster nature of the part. No one can convey the vulnerability, anxiety and yearning for acceptance better than he can.
Like Robert Preston as Harold Hill and Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, Platt will be defined by Evan Hansen for the rest of his life, no matter how many TV shows, movies and stage productions he does.
And if we’re talking age disparities, then one must mention John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing as high school students in “Grease,” and we could make a long list of examples.
I did not find him a weak link, and honestly had been worried about how he would look and fit the part on screen. Except for a bad curly hair choice, the de-aging process does not distract. I thought he was fine, and his touching interpretations of “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever” and “Words Fail” remain the gold standard.
Colton Ryan, who was an understudy for Connor on Broadway, is strong as the black-clad hostile jerk who lashes out like a caged animal. His suicide leads to the school body creating “The Connor Project” in his honor, a benefit to re-open the Autumn Smile Apple Orchard and rename it for him.
The movie comes out during Suicide Prevention Month, and any awareness of mental health and the prevalence of young people taking their own lives is a good thing. The “if only” and “Woulda, shoulda, coulda” second-guessing is relentless after a tragedy – so the pro-active efforts of this film are appreciated.
The film was adapted by Steven Levenson, who won the Tony Award for the musical’s book, and he has altered the ending to make Evan more accountable for the mess he has created – but also shows him making amends.
Not sure why they switched the original dad character to a stepfather in Larry’s case, but Danny Pino fits as the work-and-success-obsessed guy married to Amy Adams’ Cynthia, who has provided a good life for his family but has become increasingly distant over the years.
Adams, whose experience singing includes the Disney film “Enchanted” and her breakthrough Oscar-nominated performance in “Junebug,” is earnest as a grieving mother who clings to any memento and memory of her fallen son. Evan has provided her with a lifeline, and in turn, he feels accepted.
Julianne Moore, another versatile actress, is a natural as Heidi Hansen, a hard-working single mom who tries her best to support her son’s therapy and his needs.
Kaitlyn Dever is a bright spot as Connor’s sister Zoe, Evan’s crush, who admits to not knowing her brother very well. Her song with Evan, “Only Us,” is handled well as a romance blossoms.
Other noteworthy supporting turns include Nik Dodani as tech whiz and Evan’s confidante Jared and Amandla Stenberg as the cheerful over-achiever and environmental activist Alana who spearheads The Connor Project..
Stenberg collaborated with Pasek and Paul on a new song for the film, “The Anonymous Ones,” which is an outstanding addition.
However, they have removed four songs from the original score, including the two moms’ duet on parenting, “Anybody Have a Map,” and that is a shame. However, listen closely to the marching band during the pep rally and you will hear that and “Good for You.” “Disappear” and “To Break in a Glove” were also cut.
“Dear Evan Hansen” remains a moving experience, a timeless message for today and a hard-fought journey on acceptance and healing.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical drama directed by Steven Chbosky and starring Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan and Amandla Stenberg. It is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive reference. The runtime is 2 hours, 17 minutes. It is out in theaters on Sept. 24. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.