Thursday, August 24, 2017

An Admirable Project: 'Trevor' Impressively Engages as a World Premiere Musical, but Needs to Hit Harder -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Trevor: The Musical
World Premiere
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru September 17

Most musicals able to be seen in Chicagoland are ones that already ran on Broadway in New York, which along with London's West End, can be considered the Major Leagues of the theater world.

Certainly, this isn't entirely the case, as the Windy City has long attracted "tryouts" of shows en route to the Great White Way (or with such ambitions).

Simply in the 21st century, Broadway in Chicago has hosted world premiere runs of The Producers, Spamalot, The Pirate Queen, The Addams Family, Kinky Boots, Big Fish, The Last Ship, On Your Feet and The SpongeBob Musical, among others, some going on to huge success & acclaim, some not. 

The Goodman Theatre debuted The Visit, Bounce, The Million Dollar Quartet, The Light in the Piazza and War Paint, while musicals such as The Last Five Years, The Adding Machine, Hero, The Beverly Hillbillies, Shining Lives, October Sky, Beaches and Hazel were seen first--or early in development--at suburban venues such as Northlight Theatre, Next Theater, Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook and Theater at the Center in Munster.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
But even though this may sound like a substantial number of musicals that play Chicago before Broadway, most Broadway in Chicago offerings come after NYC runs, whether current, recent or long ago (e.g. the presently or soon slated Hamilton, Aladdin, School of Rock, Les Miserables, Wicked, Beautiful).

And works staged by Marriott Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Paramount Theater in Aurora, Music Theater Works in Evanston, Theo Ubique in Chicago, other local professional troupes and community theaters across numerous suburbs even more commonly come from the canon of classic "Broadway musicals."

As an avowed musical theater buff, I relish the opportunity to see World Premiere and/or Pre-Broadway musicals, and have enjoyed several of these more than some lowlights that ran on Broadway before hitting the touring circuit.

There is something thrilling about watching the gestation process, but while musicals can always be tinkered with--even years after highly successful Broadway runs--shows that play on Broadway tend to feel more finalized than ones trying to get there.

Which is all a long way of saying that while I found Trevor--a new musical with clear Broadway aspirations and talent getting its world premiere at Writers Theatre in Glencoe--to be terrific in many regards, I think it needs considerable work.

But that is par for the course, and I didn't want to begin this review by noting the issues I had with Trevor, for that would shortchange the compelling storyline--more on the origins in a moment but the book & lyrics here are by Dan Collins--a highly enjoyable score by Julianne Wick Davis, some excellent songs and superb performances led by 14-year-old Eli Tokash in the title role. 

Even in its current form, Trevor: The Musical is really good, and well-worth getting to Glencoe.

Explained in more depth in this Chicago Tribune article by Chris Jones, Trevor originated in 1994 as a monologue by actor James Lecesne, which was turned into an Oscar-winning short film the same year.

I have not seen the 12-minute movie but per Jones it chronicles "a boy with a crush on the wrong friend at school. In the film, Trevor wants nothing more than to be accepted by his friends. When they reject him, he tries to kill himself."

When the 12-minute movie was slated to air on HBO in 1998, those involved realized it might--again to quote Jones--"connect intensely with gay or questioning kids sitting at home. There might be a need for a phone number for them to call. So everyone went looking for a national service for these teenagers and found that such a service did not exist. So they had to start their own. And thus the Trevor Project--now a national nonprofit suicide prevention service for LGBTQ youths with some $6 million in revenue, more than 1,000 volunteers, some 200,000 callers a year, a 24-hour phone lifeline, new TrevorChat instant messaging, new TrevorText, new TrevorSpace and major financial support from Daniel Radcliffe, among other famous names--was born."

Until hearing about Trevor: The Musical a few months ago and reading up on it before seeing the show Wednesday night, I was not at all familiar with the movie or the Trevor Project, but unabashedly laud support being provided for gay teens, those beginning to explore and question their sexuality and anyone considering taking their own life.

Per the Trevor Project: The rate of suicide attempts is 4 times greater for LGB youth and 2 times greater for questioning youth than that of straight youth.

So although there were very few kids in the audience on Wednesday night, supposedly matinees are drawing school groups. And it's not impossible to imagine Trevor: The Musical might one day be hugely important as much more than entertainment for millions of teenagers, whether gay, different or prone to bully those who are.

But while I applaud the origins and potential benefits, and give credence to the truth that it is still a work in progress, simply as a musical that I devoted 2 hours to watching, I more liked than loved it at this point.

As Trevor Nelson, a junior high school student in 1981 who loves Diana Ross, isn't smitten like his friend Walter (Matthew Uzarraga) by a women's underwear catalog and shows a penchant for choreography, Eli Tokash--who has appeared on Broadway in Finding Neverland and Pippin--is delightful.

And so too is the character of Trevor largely delightful, showing spirited verve and surprisingly little self-consciousness as he befriends the pretty-boy jock of Lakeview Junior High, Pinky Faraday (a fine Declan Desmond).

After a stanza of Diana Ross' "Do You Know" by Salisha Thomas in her guise, an early trio of songs sung by Trevor, Walter and other students--"On With the Show," "Underneath (Turn the Page)" and Everyday (On and On)"--serve to inform that not only are there incredibly talented kids on hand, but that Trevor is a formidable musical enterprise by the largely unknown composer/lyricist tandem of Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins.

Other original songs--notably "Weird," "Can't Wait" and "What's Wrong With Me?"--are stellar, Ross gems like "It's My Turn," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Remember Me," "Endless Love" and "I'm Coming Out" can't help but bring a smile and the title character handles adolescent individuality, insecurity, peer pressure, etc., with such aplomb (mostly) as to be entirely endearing.

Everyone who ever walked a school hallway feeling out-of-place, fearful of bullies, uncertain about their hormones, etc.--which means essentially everybody--should find Trevor: The Musical quite resonant, meaningful and likable, unless entirely turned off by musical theater.

But while I highly enjoyed the production directed by Marc Bruni--who likewise helmed Beautiful: The Carole King Story on Broadway--I found it far too amiable to yet call it truly phenomenal.

For as a tale of a kid with gay tendencies who is pushed to attempt suicide, Trevor seems to have far too little edge or anxiety.

At one point, early in Act II after Trevor is terribly betrayed and humiliated, it even resorts to what feels like uneasy campiness.

I haven't yet seen current Broadway hit and Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, but simply in listening to the Cast Recording and watching some clips, that show--which also deals with teenage misfits and suicide--is clearly darker than Trevor, and seemingly appropriately so.

Another comparable musical, Billy Elliot, benefited from tying the story of a boy who wanted to dance with the labor strife of his British mining town, but there was far more complexity to that title character--and the musical numbers--but also to Billy's gay best friend, Michael.

As Chris Jones points out in his likewise positive review with similar reservations, in desiring to reach a teen audience, Trevor understandably doesn't want be too dark and difficult.

But plenty a musical has been made about young people struggling to find solid footing amid daunting surroundings--including Hairspray, Spring Awakening, Wicked, Kinky Boots, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, etc., etc.--and the best of these don't dance around difficult truths or cruel realities.

In its first public production--augmented at Writers by an outstanding set design by Donyale Werle--Trevor: The Musical is already quite admirable and enjoyable. 

Now it just needs to hit harder, dig deeper and become a good bit more daring.

Trevor's message of overcoming adversity--and embracing one's individuality--is to be universally applauded, but the show itself must toughen up.

Or to put it another way, my own memories of junior high are filled with considerably more angst than anything depicted onstage, except for Trevor's darkest moment, and even that is less harrowing than it should be. 

Treasure Trevor for what it is now, but I'm already looking forward to it becoming even better.

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