As any teacher will tell you, kids in middle school face exceptional challenges. First, of course, this is when the hormones begin to flow, but while one student might be physically, emotionally and socially ready to date, another might still be in late childhood and totally oblivious to most things having to do with kissing, let alone more advanced aspects of sex.
‘Trevor the musical’
When: Through Oct.8
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Running time: 2 hours, with one intermission
To be sure, certain innate talents and interests may have begun to blossom. And that thing known as “identity” might have started taking shape, especially if that identity is noticeably “different” from one’s peers. Yet in many ways this post-tween period is when the caterpillar is still partially wrapped in a cocoon, and not at all prepared to morph into a butterfly.
Trevor, the 13-year-old central character in “Trevor the musical” — the exuberant, youth-driven, talent-filled, possibly pre-Broadway show now receiving its world premiere at Writers Theatre — is in many ways the portrait of a classic middle-school kid, at once naive and self-aware, if a bit precocious. But he definitely is “different.” A natural performer, with all the directorial and choreographic instincts of a boyish Bob Fosse, Trevor has a passion for Diana Ross, who is more of a muse than an object of desire. And while he probably couldn’t explain what “gay” means, he knows he is considered “weird” by schoolmates at Lakeview Junior High. He also definitely feels something stirring when in the company of Pinky, the much-admired basketball player whose yet unhardened nature seems open to Trevor’s ebullience.
Based on the 1994 Oscar-winning short film of the same name (the inspiration for The Trevor Project, a crisis and suicide prevention line for sexually questioning youth), “Trevor” is set in 1981 in an unspecified Midwest suburb, just as President Ronald Reagan has become the target of an attempted assassination. It has been expanded into a fervent, surprisingly playful, fully musicalized two-hour show with a book and lyrics by Dan Collins, and music by Julianne Wick Davis. Laced throughout are such Diana Ross anthems as “Do You Know?,” “It’s My Turn,” “Upside Down,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Remember Me,” “Endless Love” and “I’m Coming Out,” all played by a large band under the galvanic music direction of Matt Deitchman.
Driven by a sensationally talented cast of professional teenage actors, the show stars the supremely confident Eli Tokash, who arrives here with Broadway, TV and film credits and remarkable singing, dancing and acting skills. And though filled with recognizable stock characters, all these actors’ distinctive personalities memorably supply a third dimension under the expert guidance of director Marc Bruni (the hand behind Broadway’s “Beautiful, the Carole King Musical”).
Beyond Pinky (Declan Desmond in a finely nuanced performance), there is Trevor’s scientifically minded pal, Walter (Matthew Uzarraga, who brings the house down with his sexy dancing in “Underneath,” part of a scene about masturbation that never uses the actual word). Then there is Cathy (a brilliant comic turn by Tori Whaples), whose nerdy looks and orthodontic rubber bands belie a zesty sex drive. There also is the serious girl, Frannie (Maya Lou Hlava), and the nasty blonde, Mary (Eloise Lushina), and the mean boy, Jason (Reilly Oh). And together they bring a priceless truth to a scene in which their plans for making out go awry.
And then there are the members of the basketball team ready to perform the traditional talent show “dance in pink tutus,” although Trevor convinces Pinky to let him choreograph a big new hat-and-cane number for them instead. This turns into one of the show’s several clever fantasy sequences, all wonderfully imagined by choreographer Josh Prince, with Bruni moving his cast seamlessly around Writers’ thrust stage. (Designer Donyale Werle’s public school set is so real you can almost smell the sour gym and disinfectant, and Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes look like Goodwill treasures.)
Injecting all the glamor and vocal prowess of Ross, Trevor’s pop diva idol and guardian angel, is Salisha Thomas. Playing his prudish, TV-bound parents are Jarrod Zimmerman (very funny, too, as both a Catholic priest giving a sex talk to Trevor, and an athletic coach), and Sophie Grimm. The warm-voiced Jhardon DiShon Milton is spot-on as Jack, the Candy Striper who bonds with Trevor after he has attempted to end his life.
If there is one crucial thing missing here it is a fuller sense of the absolute despair, humiliation and loneliness that drives the outed Trevor to attempt suicide. This part of the show tries to maintain the “musical comedy” vibe (complete with imagined funeral), but a far greater sense of broken-hearted darkness would give it the requisite emotional gravity it now lacks.
Note: Graydon Peter Yosowitz will play Trevor at most matinees.