Where: Writers Theatre Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Oct. 1
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The world premiere of “Trevor the Musical” is one of Writers Theatre’s most ambitious projects to date, so it’s not all that surprising that the show still needs a lot of work. This is especially true because tackling a serious subject in a musical—especially an upbeat musical like this one—comes with a set of tonal problems, which haven’t been solved yet.
Based on the Academy Award-winning 1994 short film that spawned The Trevor Project, a national crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization focused on saving LGBTQ youth, “Trevor” is a coming-of-age tale by Dan Collins (book and lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music) about a 13-year-old middle-school boy who idolizes Diana Ross, has a crush on a male schoolmate, and is so humiliated when the other students learn about it and revile him for being gay that he tries to commit suicide.
The theater has assembled a high-powered creative team for the production, including director Marc Bruni (“Beautiful—The Carole King Musical”), choreographer Josh Prince (also “Beaituful”), orchestrator Greg Pliska, and music director Matt Deitchman. The action is set in 1981, and Donyale Werle’s scenic design conjures up a school of that era and Trevor’s home perfectly with the help of Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes.
The talented, mostly teenage ensemble is so ably led by Eli Tokash as the title character, who is on stage virtually the entire time, that we can’t help but love this ebullient kid who wants desperately to be in Lakeview Junior High’s talent show. When the teacher running it turns him down, he finds another way. Paired with the handsome, athletic Pinky (Declan Desmond), the object of his secret crush, for a basketball challenge by the coach, he convinces the popular player to let him choreograph a jazzy hat-and-cane talent show routine for the team instead of their usual embarrassing dance in pink tutus.
All seems to be going well until Trevor’s best friend Walter (Matthew Uzarraga) betrays him by giving his notebook (full of his ideas—and feelings for Pinky) to Frannie (Maya Lou Hlava), who also has a thing for Pinky. She then gives it to mean-girl Mary (Eloise Lushina) who makes sure everyone sees it including Pinky and his buddy Jason (Reilly Oh), who thought there was something wrong with Trevor from the start. Once exposed, our young hero even is abandoned by Cathy (Tori Whaples), who wanted to be his girlfriend so badly she went with him to the local make-out place (one of the most amusing moments is when she removes the rubber bands from her braces before kissing, or trying to), his attempt to prove that he’s a normal heterosexual.
Musically, the evening mixes the regular scenes with Trevor’s fantasies involving Diana Ross (Salisha Thomas) and original songs with the diva’s hits “Do You Know?,” “It’s My Turn,” “Upside Down,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Remember Me,” “Endless Love,” and “I’m Coming Out.” They’re integrated fairly well into the story line, but tend to eclipse Collins and Wick Davis’s efforts, which have a generic musical comedy quality.
More seriously, we never feel Trevor’s pain deeply—and neither does he, really. Walter and his friendship with Trevor aren’t developed enough, so his hurriedly handled jealousy-driven betrayal doesn’t have the impact it should. The inability of Trevor’s parents (Sophie Grimm and Jarrod Zimmerman) to help is meaningless because they’re treated merely as cartoon characters. Same is true of the priest (Zimmerman) whose only purpose is the comic interlude in which he tries to explain the facts of life to an incredulous Trevor, who shares his reaction—as he does other thoughts—with the audience. The power of Pinky’s rejection is minimized by the brevity of encounters during which Trevor tries to explain himself
Even the arrangement of some scenes emphasizes comedy over potential tragedy. The big second act opener, for example, is “Your Life Is Over,” Trevor’s fantasy of his funeral and its impact on his schoolmates. Interrupted briefly by his Mom coming into his bedroom without knocking, as usual, it occurs after his notebook has been passed around (at the end of Act I) but before he returns to school and experiences the brunt of the reaction. Similarly, his suicide attempt—we just see him sitting on his bed swallowing some pills—morphs into a hospital scene in which we learn that the pills were aspirin (note to props person: they’re mistakenly in a brown-plastic prescription container) and he gets encouragement from very gay Candy Striper Jack (Jhardon DiShon Milton) to just be himself.
That, of course, is what he does, but it left me feeling dissatisfied with the creators’ lack of daring and unwillingness to tell it like it is—or was in 1981 (probably is worse now with social media)—for teens who are different from their peers and don’t know how to deal with this.