Award-winning 'Dear Evan Hansen' inspires UAE student-led musical 'Sincerely Me'

Students from GEMS Modern Academy come together for this inspirational play adapted and directed by Kevin Oliver

by Enid Grace Parker

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Kevin Oliver with his 'Sincerely Me' cast
Kevin Oliver with his 'Sincerely Me' cast

Published: Wed 23 Nov 2022, 11:48 AM

Last updated: Fri 25 Nov 2022, 4:22 PM

Known for his vibrant and engaging student-led musical productions, among them Lost, Saturday Night Fever and Starlight Express, Dubai-based teacher-mentor-playwright Kevin Oliver is adding yet another passion project to his repertoire, Sincerely Me.

Based on award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen, that revolves around the titular character, a high school student with social anxiety and depression, Sincerely Me is adapted to be “school-friendly” in the UAE, said Kevin (who is Cultural Co-ordinator, GEMS Education) in a chat with City Times.

Sincerely Me (featuring students from GEMS Modern Academy) takes you on Evan Hansen’s journey of self-discovery and hope amidst the challenges of a tumultuous social media era.

The play deals with issues related to mental health and well-being through the exchange of letters and helps the protagonist find his purpose and voice.

Kevin shared how on a trip to Toronto years ago, he happened to watch Dear Evan Hansen and was immediately struck by its relevance to the younger generation.

“This is a story set in the age of the Internet and tells of how easily we can get fooled into believing everything we see and take everything as the ‘gospel’ truth. We are surrounded by fake personalities and fake news, and the musical was such an amazing eye opener and a wake-up call to me and the youth in general. The story is about a boy called Evan Hansen and his journey from being the nerd in school to becoming the most popular kid. It’s a fabulous coming-of-age story so perfect for this generation. What could be more inspiring for a teacher/director than to explore this topic?”

The process of adapting Dear Evan Hansen was “really long” as a 2-hour-45-minute script had to be condensed to just an hour and 15 minutes, said Kevin, adding, “I wanted to bring in the essence of the story that had me spellbound when I saw it, and still not lose the essential story line amidst the adaptations.  Some songs were edited and lots of dialogue as well to ensure it was school-friendly.”

Kevin called Sincerely Me “one of the most difficult plays” he had ever done considering its human element and the relationships the characters have with each other, whether it’s mother to son, father to daughter, or friend to friend. “This story line doesn't hesitate to reveal how complex our lives are and how we could grow so much, from loving each other if we just listened to each other,” he shared.

Student actors Rishit Goswami and Aryan Kundra with Kevin Oliver
Student actors Rishit Goswami and Aryan Kundra with Kevin Oliver

Fifteen-year-old Rishit Goswami and 16-year-old Aryan Kundra - who study in Grade 11 and 10 respectively - are both playing the lead role of Evan and his friend Jared in alternating shows.

Kevin - who has encouraged, mentored and directed young talent for over three decades in UAE - was all praise for his current cast. “I had directed Rishit last year for a short play and I was amazing at the depth he puts into a role... the research.. the movements of body and the grasp of the character with his flaws and strengths... I knew then that I had to cast him as the lead and he has not let me down. Aryan I have known for a long time.... his first role with me, was about 5 or 6 years ago and I felt he was talented both vocally and stage-wise to tackle the role and this put me in a quandary as to who would better play the lead role of Evan Hansen. In the end I have them both playing the role.... we have six shows and they alternate for each show. They each bring their own take on the character and it's interesting to see how different they are.”

Rishit said playing a dual role was interesting as both Evan and Jared “have very well written back stories and are truly relatable for most teenagers.”

“Evan is a 17-year-old who deals with social anxiety and is also suicidal. He feels neglected by his single working mother and has no acquaintances or friends in school. With no outlet to express his emotions, he begins writing letters to himself (pep talks, ‘Dear Evan Hansen today is going to be a good day and here’s why’) as a therapy assignment. One of these letters is forcefully taken by an unlikely source which leads to a series of lies, resulting in a total turnaround in Evan’s life. He is the glue that holds this play together, which is ironic since he’s the person least put together out of all the others. Jared, on the other hand, is Evan’s ‘family friend and nothing more’ who seems to think he is superior to Evan, socially. However, he leads a double life, putting up a facade of a confident self while he himself struggles with loneliness. He provides comic relief throughout the play, mostly by ridiculing Evan.”

Aryan said being a part of Sincerely Me has inspired him in real life as well. “Playing the roles of both Evan and Jared has been a wonderful lesson for me. Juggling between the two has been a lesson in efficiency, time management and learning lots of lines! Also, I’ve definitely learnt to be more sensitive and aware of the feelings of those around me.”

Samiksha Ganesan plays the female lead in 'Sincerely Me'
Samiksha Ganesan plays the female lead in 'Sincerely Me'

The female lead is played by Samiksha Ganesan, a student of Grade 10. Kevin said the 15-year-old who had worked with him mainly vocally on different choir events “has so much promise as an actor”, despite being new to the world of theatre.

Samiksha hopes Sincerely Me contributes to spreading awareness about mental health among young people.

“This musical shows us that even the most confident people may be struggling on the inside. I hope it helps young people understand their feelings and helps them empathize with their peers who may be going through something similar.”

Kevin added that awareness of mental health issues is “critical for teachers and students”, especially amidst the age of social media and cyber-bullying. “Bullying online is the biggest problem most children face universally, not just in school. I think it’s a problem that the whole world faces - it’s so easy to hate someone and be mean to them without putting a name to the lines written or a face for that matter.... so easy to hide behind keyboard courage and the garb of anonymity,” he said.

Sincerely Me shows will be held at The Sunny Varkey Center for Performing Arts on November 28 and 29. For tickets and enquiries contact GEMS Modern Academy on 04 3263339.

Enid Grace Parker

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