Review: 'Dear Evan Hansen' adaptation dampens music numbers on screen

On stage, “Dear Evan Hansen” creates an unforgettable view of people detached by the artificial conversations on social media. The musical captures a longing to exchange that the convenience of texts and posts can often dilute. Creatively staged with projection screens, the theatricality of the experience amplifies what’s essential for people to emotionally connect. And the show inspires us to listen to what people around us may be trying to say. 

When any stage show moves to the screen, changes have to be made. With a musical as defined by its staging as “Evan Hansen,” the adaptation would naturally explore different approaches to tell the story. The movie version challenges director Stephen Chbosky (who addressed similar themes in his book and film “Perks of Being a Wallflower”) to personalize real and imagined conversations in the impersonal social media world while making the performances small enough to be believed on any size of screen.

Some of the director’s adjustments work. Chbosky’s decision to slow the pace of the piece in the move from stage to screen gives us the chance to get to know the characters without feeling rushed. His choice to give Ben Platt the chance to rethink his stage performance as Evan rings true despite the passage of time that could make it challenging to believe the actor is still a high school student. And selecting Amy Adams and Julianne Moore to play the mothers brings an expected emotional resonance to complicated family dynamics. 

Other approaches get mixed results. Because Chbosky cannot duplicate the theatricality of the staging he chooses to film the story on stylized movie sets that make the high school and family homes look oddly artificial. These locations give the film a retro feel – with lockers painted in bright red and homes filled with mid-century designs – that ultimately weakens the substance of the story. It can be difficult to believe a film that looks like “Grease” could have something serious to say about suicide and inclusion. 

Chbosky also chooses to minimize the musical experience. While songs often change when stage shows become movies – and this time, four numbers go away and two new ones appear – Chbosky undermines the power of most musical sequences by under-staging their performances. In some scenes, in fact, the songs almost seem to disappear. While this decision can smooth the transitions from speaking to singing, some musical moments are so understated that we hardly realize someone is initiating a melody. While this choice may please those who do not like singing and dancing on screen, songs in musical comedy enable characters to express what dialogue cannot capture. By choosing not to celebrate the musicality of this piece, Chbosky weakens a key element in making the stage show so memorable. 

Regardless of these choices, “Dear Evan Hansen” still makes us think about how we listen, notice and include. Broadway musicals always change when they go to Hollywood. When this one sings, it lets us know the movie it could have been.
“Dear Evan Hansen” runs 2 hours, 17 minutes, is rated PG-13 for “thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive reference. The film is playing in theaters.

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Film Summary: Dear Evan Hansen

Content: High. This adjusted adaptation of the Broadway musical offers a stylized look at how high school students cope with the challenges of inclusion.
Entertainment: Medium. Director Stephen Chbosky's choice to underplay the musicality of the piece dilutes the entertainment experience while focusing on its meaning.
Message: High. Through thoughtful narrative sequences, and strong dramatic performances, "Dear Evan Hansen" succeeds at making us think.
Relevance: High. Anyone who cares about how we listen to teenagers will find this a meaningful experience.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. For parents with older children, sharing this film can prompt substantive conversations.