With an optimistic eye and a healthy dose of Diana Ross, a new musical about a gay kid’s coming-of-age shows strong promise.
In “Trevor,” the quirkily charming film that won the 1995 Academy Award for best live-action short, the title character is a 13-year-old boy in a small town in the early 1980s, coming to terms with the fact that his infatuation with the school jock who treats him like a kid brother is in fact more of a crush. Notably, though, the word “gay” isn’t spoken until three-quarters of the way through the film’s 16-minute length. Despite his diva worship of Diana Ross and his own penchant for capital-D drama, Trevor doesn’t think of himself that way until other kids start throwing the term (and, presumably, other, more insulting ones) at him. Even considering some light and mostly misinformed talk of sex and Trevor’s eventual attempts at self-harm, the film’s narrative rests on a tonal innocence not too far removed from that of A Christmas Story.
That’s thankfully true, too, of the new full-length musical based on the film short that premiered at Writers Theatre this week, directed by Marc Bruni (of Broadway’s Beautiful) and commissioned by commercial producers with eyes on bigger stages. Despite our further remove from the 1981 setting and the modern default to ironic detachment, there’s no attempt at period parody or mocking the less enlightened age (beyond, perhaps, some of Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes).
If anything, this Trevor, played with uncloying spunk by young Broadway vet Eli Tokash (Graydon Peter Yosowitz at matinees), is initially sunnier than his screen counterpart. Where the filmic Trevor is introduced as a weird kid enacting macabre death scenes to attract the attention of his nonplussed parents, Tokash gives us a well-adjusted kid who just happens to have lip-synching daydreams of Miss Ross (who appears onstage here, embodied by Salisha Thomas, as a kind of guiding spirit for her biggest fan). It’s not until his fellow teens start to underline his nonconformity that Trevor sees himself as sticking out.
The writing team of Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis (best known for the musical Southern Comfort, based on the documentary about a transgender community in rural Georgia) smartly expand the film’s world, fleshing out Trevor’s friends and classmates so they, like all junior-high kids, have their own worries about fitting in. Pinky Faraday (Declan Desmond), the hunky object of Trevor’s affection, is desperate for his father’s approval; Trevor’s best friend Walter (Matthew Uzarraga) sees himself being traded in for a cooler model; Frannie (Maya Lou Hlava) betrays Trevor to preserve her own precarious social status. If this all sounds a little archetypal, it also feels universally relatable—you’ll find your own teen anxiety here somewhere.
Refreshingly, nearly all of these kids are actually played by kids; apart from the really quite endearing Tokash and his alternate Yosowitz, they’re all Chicago-area locals, and as a whole very impressive performers, both in crafting this dog-eat-dog world (still fresh in their own experiences, perhaps) and in the musical numbers, a mix of winning Davis originals and Diana Ross classics (with some sophisticated choreography by Josh Prince). Jarrod Zimmerman and Sophie Grimm provide solid backup in the adult roles.
If anything, the still in-development musical could be a tad too sanitized. I’m all for empowering messages, but the show’s current facile resolution seems to equate self-acceptance with a smooth road ahead, even as societal strides feel in renewed danger in 2017. But for a feel-good story to feel too good is a minor quibble with a very promising and quite moving new musical. Sing out, Trevor.
Writers Theatre. Book and lyrics by Dan Collins. Music by Julianne Wick Davis. Directed by Marc Bruni. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.