The sincere and entirely enjoyable new musical “Trevor” is based on the 1994 short film of the same name, known for its Oscar win but even more for having inspired suicide prevention organization The Trevor Project — a particularly impressive feat for a comedy. The relatable if overly guileless musical, premiering at the surging Writers Theater outside Chicago, follows a 13-year-old gay kid in 1981, growing up in some suburban everywhere, relishing his Diana Ross records, experiencing his first crush, and discovering that he isn’t really like everyone else.
The extraordinary young actor Eli Tokash (“Finding Neverland”) makes sure Trevor comes across as instantly lovable in his exuberant optimism and unhinged adoration of diva Ross, yet also vulnerable in his mid-pubescent innocence. He’s very real, with the character’s sexual identity obvious but unforced. Just as importantly, Tokash’s comic timing is superb.
The show cleverly moves between the real world — populated with teens, adolescent social politics and a likable but unshowy original score by Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis (“Southern Comfort”) — and the world of Trevor’s imagination, spiked with fantasies of stardom, a dance with his crush Pinky (Declan Desmond) and Diana Ross’s (Salisha Thomas) inspirational words and music, including such hits as “Endless Love” (Trevor’s “absolute fave,” to be played, he instructs, at his funeral).
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It’s an intriguingly unique mix of original and jukebox numbers, and the production certainly found the right director in Marc Bruni, who showed with “Beautiful” that he understands how pre-existing songs can inter-relate naturally with a story. In the case of “Trevor,” Bruni gets to go overboard without losing hold of the genuine when Trevor’s fantasies take flight, helped by set designer Donyale Werle (“Peter and the Starcatcher”), who makes an awful lot happen by moving Trevor’s bed around, and choreographer Josh Prince (“Shrek The Musical”), who expertly incorporates pizzazz or adolescent awkwardness into movement, depending on the moment.
Bruni guides a terrific young cast, with special shout-outs to Matthew Uzarraga and Tori Whaples as Trevor’s nerdy friends. Among the show’s standout moments are Uzarraga dancing and Whaples, with complete conviction, removing the rubber bands from her braces before kissing.
Collins’ book is much stronger in Act I than in Act II, where it is forced to reckon with the fact that the show is an issue musical without wanting to be one. The film was unburdened by knowledge of its future life as a suicide prevention vehicle; the musical doesn’t have that luxury. So this is a show is about teen suicide, but not really. (He swallows a lot of aspirin.) Or: This is a show that’s not at all about teen suicide, but conversation-starter prompts are available in the lobby. (They’re good.)
The musical tries to go comic on the topic of suicide by having Trevor imagine his funeral at the start of Act II, but it’s either too early or too late. The plot by that point has already gotten serious – Trevor’s notebook with Pinky’s name all over it has been spread around, but Trevor hasn’t yet contemplated all the alternatives, let alone death. And to make matters worse, a pivotal scene in which Trevor gets encouraged by an adult candy-striper in the hospital starts feeling like an after-school special. It’d be worthwhile to re-explore how, in the original film script, screenwriter James Lecesne delicately handled the rapid transitions in Trevor’s emotional trajectory.
It’s near impossible to avoid rooting for Trevor, both the character and the show, but the musical’s commercial prospects are both promising and problematic. There’s a reason shows about kids this age are not all that common — think “13,” the terrific but commercially unsuccessful Jason Robert Brown musical. “Trevor” could use more edge, wit, or sophistication to go to the next level of aesthetic maturity. Its sense of comedy could be just a touch more, well, tragic.