The In-Person Off-Broadway Experience: Trevor: A New Musical
I never did see the short film from twenty-seven years ago, but I do know how much it inspired and altered the culture of just accepting a homophobic stance within. If it weren’t for the film, The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, might never have reached the visibility it has to this day. It’s a mind-blowing shift, really, and one that has affected so many lives; saved so many lives, that a world without this organization is now unthinkable. Take it from me as the only out kid in my high school back in 1980 London, Ontario. Thankfully I wasn’t bullied or harrassed, like others in that very same high school, but the threat is real, regardless, and the process of coming out is tense with shame and discomfort. The film, I’ve been told, is a complete charmer (I’ll have to watch, as I also hear numerous things about it, mainly that it hasn’t aged well), but the darkness of what’s inside the structure, namely suicide within the young gay community, sat heavy in my heart from the moment I walked into the Stage 42 Theatre one Saturday night in NYC. I was here to see a musical about a gay teenage boy, bullied into attempting suicide, and that felt like a complicated journey to orchestrate. How was Trevor: A New Musical going to pull this off?
The musical adaptation, with book and lyrics by Dan Collins (Harold & Lillian; Southern Comfort) and music by Julianne Wick Davis (The Pen; Southern Comfort), starts out pretty joyous and fun. Yes, it’s another high school musical, with all the typical stereotypes paraded out by song, but the young titular lead, played wisely by Holden William Hagelberger (The Public SA’s Matilda) is a whole new breed. He’s filled, at least in Act One, with a solid worshiping energy of joyful adoration, specifically, in regard to sparkling diamond herself, Diana Ross, who shows up throughout, embodied by the delicious Yasmeen Sulieman (Broadway’s Beautiful) to sing some solid classics that are smartly stitched into the playful plot. She is Trevor’s emotional mentor, finding just the right thing, usually, to inspire and coax him along in his star-gazing journey. Act One feels as joyful as one could hope for, but in the back of our brain, we know where this is leading. The signs are all there, slipped in stereotypically, but we get caught up in Trevor’s excitement; both the boy’s and the musical’s, that only when we break for intermission, does the inevitable darkness of what is to come start to sneak into our consciousness.
We know the bullying will begin, and it’s gonna have to be strong enough to push our main character to attempt suicide. That we know, not deathly dark, but somehow we are tricked into thinking this might be going somewhere else, although we also know that’s foolhardy to hold on to that hope. It’s gotta go bad, but how will that balance with the feelings that have been heightened by director Marc Bruni’s (Broadway’s Beautiful) bubble gum beginning? And will it work emotionally?
Trevor sees the birth of potential stardom waiting for him within the high school’s annual talent show, but his not-so-loving teacher doesn’t want to give him a spot. She feels his ideas are inappropriate and not aligned with her gender-conforming constructs. It’s the first sign of trouble for Trevor, but he doesn’t let it deride his sparkly imaginary road to fame and fortune. Through a sweet friendship that slowly builds pretty authentically between Trevor and the popular high school jock, Pinky, played compassionately by Sammy Dell (School of Rock‘s first national tour), an alternative idea is born. Trevor wants to create, direct, and choreograph a new song and dance number, complete with top hat and canes, for the high school’s basketball team, with Pinky leading the charge. The dream sequence of what’s inside Trevor’s head is deliciously fun. So glad the writers give us the chance to see this spectacular high kicking Broadway-style number, choreographed with style by the magnificent Josh Prince (Encores’ The New Brain), but the reality is something completely different. No surprise there. In the talent show, traditionally, the team’s number is a complete shameful, sexist, and homophobic mess of toxic masculine stereotypes, making fun of anything feminine or artsy. The laughs you see come from the team members dancing and prancing around in pink tutus, mocking anything that doesn’t fit neatly and cleanly inside the gender conformist rule book within the school. That’s a pretty powerful idea that doesn’t really get the insight or attention it deserves from Trevor, but somehow inside that budding friendship, Pinky gets the team to go along with Trevor’s plan. It doesn’t mesh as well as it should although the cast of young performers sell the idea as well as they can. Right up until the ultimate betrayal of two friends. When the cruelty of teenagers comes stomping in for all to see. It is a heartbreaking scene that would sting even the hardest of souls.
On a solidly designed, but sometimes physically unstable set by Donyale Werle (Encores! Off-Center’s Road Show), with perfectly orchestrated costumes by Mara Blumenfeld (Broadway’s Metamorphoses), lighting by Peter Kaczorowski (Transport Group’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown), and sound design by Cody Spencer and Brian Ronan (Broadway’s War Paint), the switch from light to dark comes quick and complicated. Trevor’s best friend, Walter (a good Aryan Simhadri) throws Trevor under the gay bus almost too casually, mainly because he’s pissed about being sidelined by Trevor’s new friendship with Pinky. It’s obvious and completely understandable that Trevor is reading too much into the popular boy’s kindness and engagement. We all see it more clearly, and know that this is where the eventual hurt will come from, but that the wound is set in motion by Walter is a bit of a kicker. The kids, in general, do a respectable job becoming cruel and mean, although there are few moments for these kids to vocally shine in the spotlight beyond playing stereotypes from other high school musicals. I see you, Mean Girls, although that show has a sharper edge to its writing. The kids certainly are enthusiastic and obviously believe in the material and the idea of Trevor, especially in their descent into cruelty, but director Bruni and the musical itself fail to show off the young singers’ possible talent or range. It all feels a bit too high school if you know what I mean, like a high school musical production of the same show with a lot of earnestness and intent but not enough sharp focus on the whole.
There is a stiff and awkward weakness in the development of the adult characters, played by Sally Wilfert (Broadway’s Assassins) and Jarrod Zimmerman (Writers Theatre’s Sweet Charity). They come off more like sitcom characters in an overly simplistic family show, dulled of any real honest edge, negating the effectiveness within the construct, but the Frannie (a strong Isabel Medina) sidestep storyline is cute and enjoyable, although somewhat obvious. She, like many in this high school musical, isn’t really given the chance to truly shine in the spotlight. It’s all played somewhat too lightly and for laughs during the first act for the fall to feel all that devastating. We all get it, the hurt and the devastation of friendships broken, and see the moment with a pang to the heart, but I never felt that connected to Hagelberger’s Trevor to really feel the stab completely. The scene of a distraught and heartbroken Trevor making a half-hearted attempt at self-harm involving battery wires doesn’t electrify the moment as strongly as it should. His voice is good, and his energy infectious, but maybe when a character is played so lightly in the first half, the switch doesn’t register as deeply or strongly as I had hoped.
He survives the attempt, obviously (I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything really), but the switch from silly to serious doesn’t feel that authentically curated, that is until Aaron Alcaraz (Broadway’s Mean Girls) shows up as the hospital volunteer to deliver the strong “It Gets Better” number. This is where Trevor: A New Musical finally takes hold of the weight it has been given to present. This is serious stuff, teenage suicide because of sexual orientation and high school bullying, and Alcaraz does a fine job bringing the idea upfront and center.
Maybe I was wanting something different, or more serious from the very beginning, but this poppy big-hearted pop musical has a more big-hearted fun agenda stitched inside than maybe is necessary. The Diana Ross experience definitely adds to the enjoyment of the show, incorporating her well-known songs, “Do You Know?”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and the obviously appropriate “I’m Coming Out,” bringing this show to its foregone conclusion with a dancey energy. The show is light-hearted and fun in these moments, and when it tries to darken its shine, I never found myself fully invested. I’m not convinced by Trevor, but I think I was the odd gay man out here, cause the crowd, even though only 1/3rd full, is totally on board, and to be honest, that fact is all that truly matters, and it really does make me a happy camper.