If the crux of your musical’s story centers around its 13-year-old protagonist’s attempted suicide, it may be best to forgo an Act II opener that dresses its young cast in funereal garb, stages its main character in his bed like a coffin, and features lyrics about dying from embarrassment. Unfortunately, for Trevor: The Musical–now in its world premiere Broadway-tryout at Writers Theatre in Glencoe–its creators choose to share a winking, humorous treatment of death in these second act moments, rather than address the more substantive weightiness that comes from being bullied at school for being different. The musical’s treatment of sexuality largely retains this approach, lampooning the “awkwardness” and “discomfort” that those outside Trevor face in the colorful, heteronormative 1980s as Trevor idolizes Diana Ross and works to create a show-stopping performance for the Junior High Talent Show. For writer Dan Collins, composer Julianne Wick Davis, and director Marc Bruni, it seems that homosexuality (the words “gay” or “homosexual” are never outright mentioned in the musical’s two-hour running time) is nothing more than the butt of a joke, as are the out-of-place feelings its characters face on the brink of adolescence.
This frivolousness and sanitization is in service to no one. The Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ crisis and suicide hotline inspired by this musical’s source material, exists for a reason, a reason that is hardly treated with the seriousness it deserves in a musical mining the themes such an organization advocates. For adult audiences, who heartily chuckled throughout the Writers Theatre opening on Wednesday night, there is little instructive in the ways Trevor‘s older characters navigate Trevor’s sexuality. For younger audiences, of which the production is certainly aiming to win over, its treatment of its subject matter is too pat, showcasing a happy ending without earning the feelings of alienation and the stakes that would drive a young boy to attempt suicide.
That isn’t to say that the cast is incapable of reaching such depths of emotion. On the contrary, the talent of Bruni’s cast only serves to draw further attention to where Collins and Davis’ book and music are lacking in honesty. In the lead role as Trevor, Eli Tokash is impeccable. He is charming, lovable, and charismatic as the show’s narrator and central figure, and equally adept at registering a spectrum of feelings in the delivery of his lines, lyrics, and physical presence on stage. The remainder of the cast is equally impressive in their multi-talented performances. Maya Lou Hlava stands out in her multi-layered portrayal of Frannie, a girl caught between her morals and the lure of popularity, as does Tori Whaples as Cathy, whose comedic delivery is tuned to perfection.
As an ensemble, the cast works seamlessly to transport you from location to location, aided by some inventive direction from Bruni and engaging choreography from Josh Prince. Donyale Werle’s scenic design is equally effective in creating the world of Trevor, harnessing a variety of tricks to keep the story flowing smoothly throughout the evening. While not all of Davis’ score is memorable, there are some songs that serve the piece well, and others feel like further development could make them shine.
Despite its hardworking cast’s best efforts, Trevor falls flat in a way that at its best is misguided and at its worst veers towards irresponsibility. The production is absolutely worth your while if you are interested in seeing an impressive crop of young talent perform their hearts out, but the ease and simplicity with which it skates around its subject matter restrains the piece from moving beyond topicality. Sure, in 2017 the issues of Trevor are relevant to audiences of all ages…but at a time when transgender soldiers serving our country are under attack and differences in identity violently widen an ideological chasm amongst Americans, we must ask ourselves: is relevance enough? If artists are to hold a mirror to our society, isn’t it more helpful to choose something other than funhouse glass to reflect the world we live in?
Trevor runs through September 17 at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Tickets range from $35-$80 and can be purchased online or by calling 847-242-6000.
Advisory: This production is intended for audiences aged 13 and up, and contains themes of sexuality and self-harm.