Chicago Theatre Review
Searching For Identity
Trevor, the Musical – Writers Theatre
A new musical, which may even be Broadway bound, has opened in Glencoe. It’s significant for many reasons. This is a musical based upon a 1994 Academy Award-winning film about a 13-year-old boy coming to terms with his sexual orientation. It’s a heartbreaking and often humorous true story about an adolescent who, simply by following his heart, is ostracized from both his family and his peers. He finds himself unfairly condemned simply for being himself.
When the film aired on HBO four years later, its influence was even more deeply felt. Across the nation, people suddenly became aware that there were thousands of LGBTQ youth who were struggling with the same issues as Trevor. These kids had nowhere to turn. Often, because of this lack of support, suicide seemed the only way out for these young people. Thus, the Trevor Project was established, through contributions by generous, empathetic citizens. It provided a hotline, available 24/7, to offer support for any young person “in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe or judgment-free place to talk.”
The lesson to be learned in this new theatrical version of Trevor’s story, although set in 1981, feels just as contemporary and important today. Because of the unfortunate shift in views and values that have resulted from the last election, these issues now seem especially topical. Bullying, whether from homophobia, the way a person dresses, a kid’s weight, his interests, or countless other reasons, has risen to new heights. Today it’s even more prevalent with social media, offering antagonizers a new, omnipresent platform for their intimidation.
Trevor, the Musical, has been adapted and shaped by a respected team of creative artists with impressive resumes. U Rock Theatricals sought submissions from librettists and composers to adapt the Oscar-winning movie for the stage. Dan Collins fleshed out the original 17-minute film, exploring Trevor’s vivid imagination, his friends and family, his love of musical theatre and, especially, his obsession with Diana Ross. Collins created both the book and the lyrics for this show. His collaborator, Julianne Wick Davis, composed a score that, while providing many rhythmical opportunities for choreographed production numbers, is essentially comprised of musical monologues and conversations. These lovely recitatives, such as “One of These Days,” “Weird” and “What’s Wrong With Me?” aren’t the kind of songs that an audience will go out humming, despite several being reprised throughout the two-hour production. But they are songs that deeply plumb the depth of Trevor’s emotional journey and get to the heart of the musical’s issues.
The production, under the guidance of Artistic Director Michael Halberstam, is sensitively directed by Broadway’s Marc Bruni. His vast resume includes, among other shows, the Tony Award-winning “Beautiful: the Carol King Musical.” The show is dynamically choreographed by Josh Prince, also represented on Broadway by his work with “Beautiful,” as well as “Shrek, the Musical.” Chicago’s own multitalented Matt Deitchman both musically directs this production and conducts his masterful nine-member backstage orchestra, employing fine orchestrations by Greg Pliska. Donyale Werle, whose New York credits include “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “The Robber Bridegroom,” impresses with a two-level scenic design that flows seamlessly from Trevor’s school to his bedroom, and other locales. Mara Blumenfeld once again brings her creativity to Writers Theatre with a colorful wardrobe of period-perfect costumes. Her splashy, spangled costumes for Diana Ross are particularly grand and gorgeous. And Broadway lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski has illuminated Trevor’s story with particular brilliance.
This production wouldn’t be nearly as moving or memorable if not for the unsurpassed emotional portrayal and musical theatre talent of young Eli Tokash, as Trevor. This Broadway veteran, who’s played Peter in both the New York and National Tours of “Finding Neverland,” has also been seen as Theo in “Pippin,” Ralphie in “A Christmas Story and Michael Banks in “Mary Poppins.” He holds this show in the palm of his hand. Mr. Tokash is sensitive and both introspective and interactive with the other characters around him. This young actor belies his years demonstrating a shrewd understanding of how to play this kind of role. He walks that fine line of being a seasoned, professional actor while keeping his character fresh and realistic. Never cutesy or insincere, Eli Tokash is an example of perfect casting and his earnest, heartbreaking performance is reason alone for seeing this production. Trevor is alernately played by the equally impressive young Broadway actor Graydon Peter Yosowitz on all two-show days.
Eli is matched by some very talented Chicago actors, as well. As Walter, Trevor’s best friend, the always impressive young triple-threat Matthew Uzarraga is terrific. Local audiences have watched this talented young actor grow up on area stages, having twice played Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, in “The King and I,” as well as Gavroche in Drury Lane’s “Les Miserables” and Flounder in Chicago Shakespeare’s “The Little Mermaid.” He’s simply sensational in this supporting role and is certainly ready to play a lead.
Tori Whaples endearingly plays Cathy, Trevor’s nerdy female friend, with wholehearted dedication. Wishing to be considered more of a femme fatale than an intellectual, she accepts Trevor’s invitation to meet him at the local make-out spot, ready for her first sexual encounter. The experience goes horribly wrong, but Ms. Whaples bucks up by the end of the play and finds her own true happiness. As Pinky Farraday, Trevor’s new friend and the object of his romantic fantasies, Declan Desmond is excellent. His clean-cut good looks are matched by a certain authentic, midwestern charm that feels both honest and encouraging. Mr. Desmond, as it turns out, is not only a triple threat actor, but can easily sink a basketball, as well.
Other standouts in this cast include the delightful Sophie Grimm in the dual roles of Trevor’s conservative Mom and his stern English teacher, Mrs. Kerr. Jarrod Zimmerman also does double duty playing Trevor’s Dad and Father Joe. Jhardon DiShon is kind and understanding as Jack, a hospital candy-striper who offers Trevor some heartfelt advice and comradeship that helps alter the teenager’s outlook on life. And Salisha Thomas, who has toured in “Beautiful” and played such roles as Deena in “Dreamgirls” and TiMoune in “Once on this Island,” is a show-stopping Diana Ross. Opening the musical with “Do You Know?” she appears in Trevor’s imagination, offering emotional support through songs like “It’s My Turn,” “Upside Down,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Endless Love.” She absolutely brings down the house with her all-company production number, the rainbow-themed, “I’m Coming Out.”
This new play is topical, poignant, yet very funny and, despite the artificiality of being a musical, pretty realistic. The characters are authentic. The songs come from the heart and the choreographed numbers are all well-executed and highly energetic. However, the musical’s just a smidge too wholesome and innocent. It lacks an edge. Anyone who’s ever worked with this age group knows that middle school kids can, even back in the early 1980’s, be heartlessly cruel and vicious to their peers.
While Trevor’s harshest attack comes from Pinky’s note, the other students seem more passive than outwardly hostile, more mean than merciless. It’s not clear why Trevor would be driven to such an extreme response without the rest of his peer group pushing him further. This show has so much to offer, but a bit of additional material will help with that too clean look and feel. It’s a happy, almost too optimistic musical that suddenly presents a suicide attempt that almost comes out of left field. We don’t properly build to this climactic moment.
With a bit of rewriting this show could be another “Dear Evan Hansen” for the junior high school set. It speaks to the prejudices and insecurities we’ve all experienced during that precarious period of puberty called adolescence. Trevor is an heroic character and he deserves his story to be told in song and dance, since that’s his life. He’s a likable kid searching for his own identity, much like this musical. There simply needs to be more grit and build toward the climax for audiences to fully invest in this teenager’s tale of survival.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 9-September 17 by Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 847-242-6000 or by going to www.writerstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.