Dear Amy Adams, The Oscars Are Going To Be A Great Day, And Here’s Why…
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
It was 2017, the week before the Tonys. I was jetlagged, a couple of beers and too much caffeine in, and it was raining. I headed to The Music Box and settled in for Dear Evan Hansen. I had the same level of anticipation as the surrounding middle schoolers in my Mezzanine section. I was impressed by Ben Platt’s manic pacing of mono/dialogue while still delivering expert diction. I enjoyed his performance. I did not really enjoy Michael Greif’s direction, nor did I enjoy the incredibly distracting social media feeds projected on the stage. I understood the concept: the wrapping in of audiences into the dangerous world of going viral and keyboard warriors. I cried at the end of Act One when Michael Park broke down as Larry Murphy, mourning the loss of his son, and then was disappointingly shocked when Evan and Zoe kissed. It felt hugely manufactured and forced. I left the theater touched but conflicted. Two nights later I saw Come From Away and figured it would win a booty ton of Tonys. We all knew how that turned out.
This past Thursday I took in the 10:35pm showing, on a school night. I saw it with colleagues in the Fresno thespian world. I was impressed at how little groaning I did, but not surprised at the lack of caring I felt for Evan Hansen, played by yes, an older Ben Platt. Older because people do age. It happens. To all of us. Anyways…
Amy Adams. This film deserves one and only one accolade, and it belongs to Amy Adams. When I saw Jennifer Laura Thomspon’s turn as Cynthia Murphy it left me wanting more of the Murphy family, especially Cynthia, because their situation was so touching. Rachel Bay Jones, as Heidi Hansen, took home her Tony because 1) she’s talented and 2) Heidi has better material, like a Glinda-Elphaba relationship. I felt this show would improve if it was more focused on these two strong mothers and their journey in processing their sons’ decisions. Heidi does her best to help Evan manage his depression and anxiety while Cynthia is left to pick up the pieces of a family mourning a suicide. This is real life. This is material audiences find value in and empathy for. But that wasn’t the direction this film took. And that’s because Stephen Chbosky’s direction is an uninspiring effort with an immensely talented cast delivering the same white-washed savior who faces no real consequences story.
But Amy Adams. The gift she brings to this film is her ability to play Cynthia at the very edge of believable mother in denial. Adams’ journey is a journey, one that neither the material nor direction supports; it’s Amy Adams who supports Amy Adams’ choices, and that’s just fine by me. I felt for her. I felt for the Murphys much more than I thought was possible. Kaitlyn Dever’s Zoe provides filmgoers the opportunity to hear a strong voice, appropriately thinly projected as she laments in “Requiem,” and I do applaud the creators for giving Zoe more autonomy in her choice of when to express her feelings for Evan. (Jazz hands for getting rid of the ill-timed kiss!) However, with Adams’ and Dever’s strengths comes the apex of the issue: They would never, ever believe Evan’s lies. Adams’ caring, deeply involved mothering of Zoe and Connor wouldn’t let a best friend escape her attention. Heidi, sure, because she is a hard-working single mother (something I know personally as a child of divorce with a mom who did work lots and late to provide for us.) The beginning of the film is a journey of “assumption of belief” that everyone in Evan’s life is projecting and finishing his sentences for him, telling Evan what they want to hear while he just goes along with it. It’s a weak foundation to support how far he takes the lies.
In the supporting roles of Jared and Alana, the uninspiring direction actually makes a choice: by making Jared, played by Nik Dodani, a smug, one-note jerk with little reason as to why Evan would trust him with any secrets. Alana, played quite well by Amandla Stendberg, comes across as an opportunist who is simply looking for the next cause to boost her passion for a project. Her delivery of “The Anonymous Ones” is excellent though, and gives viewers a brief look into her representation of teens everywhere who feel anonymous, alone, and ignored. Now, these characters could have more depth to them, to be sure, but why should the all-white, male creative team spend time on the characters-of-color when Ben Platt, the actor without whom this film “just could not have been possible to make” is at the front-and-center? The ego of the “Only Ben Could Play This Role” is apparent every moment Ben Platt is on screen; it really is un-ignorable, and it lessens the value of the film as a whole. The age thing doesn’t bother me as much as much it does the keyboard warriors and trolls; you get used to the hair and the makeup and the age. I don’t believe that’s enough to warrant a write-off of talent. However, as a character on the screen, I cared most for the plot when Ben wasn’t on the screen.
“Requiem” is a peak moment of enjoyment because, hey, no Evan to be seen. In addition to Adams and Devers, Danny Pino delivers a strong performance as Larry Murphy, creating a triad of strength for the Murphy family. I guess the casting did the work for the direction.
“Waving Through a Window” serves as a solid opening number to the film, setting up the relationship between Evan & Heidi and Evan vs. High School effectively and efficiently. “Sincerely, Me” is excellently choreographed by Jamaica Craft and led by a wholly wonderful Colton Ryan as Connor Murphy. It makes sense, here, for the cookie-cutter, High School Musical-esque aesthetic of school spirit and camaraderie to be present, when Evan and Jared are crafting a false high school experience and friendship between the former and Connor. However, the entire film is set in a spirited, beautiful high school context and aura, making no distinction between ideal high school experience and real high school experience. The impact of the “you need to care about Evan, dammit!” loses its touch rather quickly because there’s no room for suspension of disbelief in the school, nor the homes of the Murphys and Hansens.
As a high school teacher, I see my students trying to go viral with the next TikTok or Insta-story post. When it does happen (not my students per se, but in general) there is never a one-reaction response. Where there’s massive love for something, there is still a band of haters/trolls/sh*t-talkers piping up. The same goes for the negative viral things: there’s still a band of supporters/confirmers. I mean, just look at the reactions to this very film. For “You Will Be Found” to be universally accepted with no display of the people who would definitely be making fun of Evan is tone-deaf to how viral videos work in 2021, and that’s the whole point, right Pasek, Paul, and Levenson? Which leads me to my final point: We never see Evan, and Alana for that matter, face a consequence. I get that the Murphys are a forgiving family, and Amy Adams’ take on Cynthia would certainly make the decision made for her in the script. But Evan makes his pivotal confession about lying on Instagram, puts the phone down, and then we never see him lose a follower or receive a threatening DM. Alana posts the initial letter after Evan confided in her to not, which also was a device for him to propel his lie, but whatever. She posts it for her Connor Murphy Project, it immediately results in hate speech thrown at the Murphys, and Alana gets zero repercussions from Evan, the Murphys (if they even know she posted it?), or anyone. Okay, cool. Hey, teens! Do whatever you want for your own motivations, and it’s okay. Everything will just be okay. Julianne Moore says this, as Heidi Hansen, in her turn at “So Big/So Small” and it works because it’s mom saying it. And, here we are again, the power of this story resides in the moms’ dealing with their family in ways that show strength, resilience, and maternal instincts on display in a vulnerable way. That’s why Jones won that well-deserved Tony, and it’s why Adams should win her much-overdue Oscar. She makes this film work, by all accounts.
I am glad theatre kids of all ages have more access to this story. I’m glad the message of anxiety and depression is being discussed in musical theatre form, because the stigma needs to leave so those who live with anxiety and depression may feel loved, heard, and be seen. However, the ends do not justify the means with Dear Evan Hansen. There are simply too many sideswipes at “please care about Evan! It’s Ben Platt! Savior savior savior role, amiright?! People love this stuff!” I love that it gave people work, I’m glad I saw it, and I’ll be happy when Adams gets her award.