‘Trevor’ is a gay teen on the edge. Luckily, Diana Ross is there, too.
The Daily Beast
November 11, 2021
‘Trevor’ is a musical about a gay teen, bullied to the point of attempting suicide. What it sometimes lacks as a piece of theater is more than made up for by its powerful message.
In some ways it feels odd as an adult to watch the musical Trevor: the Musical, which opened tonight in New York (booking to April 17, 2022 at Stage 42). It seems tonally like it’s really aimed at children or teenagers, whose world it centers. The parents and adults loom large as cartoon cutouts, and the action takes place mostly in school halls and kids’ bedrooms.
For a musical about a 13-year-old gay kid simultaneously determinedly being himself and suffering soul-destroying homophobia, it also has a hard time actually saying both these things out loud. It edges around all the issues it’s really about. The subtlety is supposed to be embracing, I guess, but it feels frustratingly timid. The makers may say their show is set in 1981, and things were certainly different then. But the show is about a young queer kid, and seems to be aimed at kids of now, so it really would benefit from being more blatant and blunt.
The musical is derived from the 1995 Academy Award-winning short film Trevor, from which grew the much-valued Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people. (The musical is not affiliated with the non-profit.) Despite social progress, the Trevor Project helps young LGBTQ people who are still being isolated, rejected, and bullied because of their sexual and gender identities—and so it is valuable to have a stage show like Trevor highlighting an ongoing, piercing issue. Note to producers: Given the level of legislative attacks aimed at them right now, it would be good to see a similar project focused on trans teens.
Maybe its makers intend Trevor (Holden William Hagelberger) to be an all-purpose different kid. He’s very camp, sweet, intelligent, already over the absurd and constraining world around him. But where an adult audience might read “confident gay kid,” the musical reminds us that Trevor actually, like many people (especially kids), is not sure what he is and sure as hell hasn’t put any kind of label on anything. He hasn’t assumed any identity. Hagelberger has amazing energy; he throws himself around the stage, he’s funny, sharp, he doesn’t suffer fools. At the beginning of the show, he doesn’t seem hobbled by anguish.
His hero is Diana Ross, and the show’s standout performance is by Yasmeen Sulieman playing Ross as a dream figure, dispensing wisdom via snatches of her songs, and dressed in one sequin-shimmering knockout gown after another by costumer Mara Blumenfeld.
Trevor changes as it progresses—and the nature of the change is darker and more dramatic than audience might expect. He falls in love and lust, all smooshed together, with the school jock Pinky (Sammy Dell), and awfulness ensues when a couple of malign bullies scheme to drive him over the edge.
Before we get to that point the musical maintains the cheer of a pep rally with pumped-up songs and choreography, as Trevor rallies the school jocks, including Pinky, to perform in a song and dance revue. At this stage, Trevor as character and musical seems to be flying above typical boundaries and classifications, whose queerness is triumphant and undefined—and transformative for those around him. But then things take a turn, and when Trevor’s crush on Pinky is revealed, and he finds himself isolated and teased at school, his thoughts turn to ending his life.
Here, the musical changes completely—and goes to an appositely dark place, hospital bed and all. There is a touching conversation with a kind nurse, and a far too hurried resolution, which most egregiously lets Trevor’s persecutors almost completely off the hook. At least let the gay kid have a good old-fashioned revenge please against the villains, he does not have to be noble all the time!
It’s understandable that the creators of the musical don’t take the musical down the full dark route, and see Trevor end his life. The message, rightly, is that LGBTQ kids should, must, live. But one wonders about the dramatic and audience-confrontational possibilities the more brutal story turn would have yielded.
As it is, the show does not address the magnitude of Trevor’s attempt to take his own life, and the bullying that led to it. There are general discussions about valuing yourself, and embracing some kind of future. It is all very Oprah meets after-school special. That is valuable, of course, and Trevor is restored to his confident self at the end, looking ahead and to fresh possibilities.
But given the gravity of the musical’s themes, it also tiptoes around those themes. It bravely sets out to confront something, then shies from the darkness of the confrontation. If you have seen a show like the brilliant Beautiful Thing on screen and stage, which tackles similar themes, you feel the dramatic lack in Trevor.
My adult disappointment in how meek Trevor is as a show was balanced by the sight of the mom and dad in front of me with their kid, all three of them absolutely engrossed, and also mom and dad watching their kid for their responses, and occasionally squeezing their arm with reassurance or recognition.
They were not alone. There were other families and young people there too. And so maybe Trevor is doing something far more important, in terms of providing a sense of belonging, or in Trevor himself as a figure on stage speaking very directly to the young people the show seems to be addressing. Wherever Trevor falls short as a piece of theater may be more than offset by the good it is doing.