“‘It takes a long time to be a diva. I mean, you gotta work at it,’” Trevor explains to his friend, channeling his beloved idol Diana Ross, in a scene from Writers Theatre world-premiere Trevor the Musical. The quote is indicative of the events to come as we watch Trevor, a 13 year old boy grappling with his emerging sexuality in an intolerant environment - one which hasn’t quite recognized homosexuality, let alone found language for it that Trevor can use to better understand his feelings. And while Trevor’s feel-good story is one packed full of laughs, tears, and engaging musical numbers, the show itself still needs to do some soul-searching before it reaches diva status.
At the heart of the play, wise-cracking, Diana Ross-obsessed Trevor wants nothing more than to be a performer. Whether crafting his award-acceptance speech or serenading his imaginary audience from his own private stage (aka his bed), Trevor commits wholeheartedly to his passions and throws himself into preparing his “big break,” the middle school talent show. When his act doesn’t make the final cut, Trevor volunteers to choreograph a number for the football team instead, and he soon finds himself center stage in a manner much different than the one he imagined.
Though penned in contemporary musical theatre style by writers Dan Collins (book and lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music), the play is actually based on a short film Trevor, which, ironically, is both the source of the musical and perhaps some of its shortcomings too. While I was too young to hear about the original film’s success and its significance in 1994, it’s easy to imagine how subversive such a story, set in 1981,would have been in a world where gay rights virtually weren’t spoken of, let alone recognized.
But it’s not, thankfully, 1981 or 1994 anymore. We still have a long way to go, but our society is certainly in a different place than we were decades ago. It is here that Trevor, for all its brilliance, falls a bit short.
Collins’ book strives to showcase a level of truth and poignancy in Trevor’s story, but the play’s easy solution (a magical candy striper citing Ross-esque words of wisdom), to Trevor’s trauma does a disservice to the otherwise multi-dimensional narrative. The abrupt “everything will suddenly be okay” mentality may have appeased earlier audiences, but 2017 playgoers may yearn for a more nuanced explanation of the effects of bullying and discrimination.
Furthermore, the play never quites find the right balance in terms of its structure. Most of the best scenes spring from Trevor’s imaginated musical numbers (such as the Act II opening), but the play can’t seem to find its true voice between showcasing what’s in Trevor’s head and what’s happening outside of it. To put it more plainly, we need more Diana.
Criticism of the script’s still-in-progress feel aside, the show is one that you will undoubtedly leave smiling. Wick Davis’ original music, brilliantly coupled with hits from Diana Ross’s own oeuvre, captures the joy, fear, and sadness of Trevor’s inner state of mind, and Josh Prince’s choreography constantly finds innovative ways to utilize the space. Marc Bruni’s direction of this young cast cannot go unmentioned either; the mostly-teenage cast is as professional as any adult ensemble, executing complicated blocking and exhibiting complex emotions with ease and aplomb.
Cast standouts include the lovable and lively Matthew Uzarraga as Trevor’s best friend Walter, a performer whose acting is trumped only by his effortless and energetic dancing. Pulling off her braces’ rubber bands in preparation for her first kiss, Tori Whaples displays perfect comedic timing as Trevor’s “beard” Cathy, and Sophie Grimm’s dual performances as Trevor’s mom and teacher offers up even more laughs with her hilarious facial expressions.
Rightfully, though, it is Eli Tokash’s Trevor who steals the show. Singing or acting as a principal role in nearly every scene, Tokash carries the play with an incredibly impressive level of focus, energy, and raw talent. This young performer will go as far, perhaps, as his fictional counterpart Trevor wants to.
Reviewed by Emily Schmidt
Trevor continues at Writers Theatre through September 17. More information here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.