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Theatre in Review: Trevor (Stage 42)

Sammy Dell (left, center), Holden William Hagelberger (right), and the company. Photo: Joan Marcus

The title character of Trevor is an adolescent work in progress but Holden William Hagelberger, who plays him, is a fully formed talent. Playing a nonconforming eighth-grader whose heart (and hormones) are pushing him toward social disaster, he is a starry-eyed bundle of energy, a winning presence with a strong singing voice. Aged 13, he carries this two-act musical like a seasoned pro.

Hagelberger is tasked with functioning as a unifying presence in a show that, like its title character, is a mass of conflicting impulses. Based on an Oscar-winning short written by Celeste Lecesne (drawn from his Off-Broadway solo show Word of Mouth), Trevor at least offers a fresh take on the well-worn subject of a gay teen's travails: Trevor is an eighth-grader in 1981, struggling with feelings he can't quite name and living in a suburban environment where adult guidance is nonexistent. Even musical theatre fans who have attended The Prom and who know why everyone's talking about Jamie may find something novel in Dan Collins' book. But the show would be much better off if it could settle on a surer tone.

We first meet Trevor, who has a rich inner life, in a fantasy duet with none other than Diana Ross. (Miss Ross is his diva of choice, and his bedroom is, to the chagrin of his bemused parents, a shrine to her fabulousness.) At school, he sits at the bottom of the nerd ladder, making a fool of himself in gym class and boring the other kids with his dreams of stardom. (His audition for the school talent show, a solo piece based on the movie Fame, is a non-starter, not least because of his enthusiastic interpretation of Irene Cara's character.) Trevor also has a major crush on the oddly named Pinky, a football hero. As it happens, Pinky resists the tradition in which the team appears in the talent show wearing tutus. Improbably, Trevor is brought in to save Pinky from this humiliation by staging a glitzy dance number -- complete with canes and top hats -- for him and other members of the squad.

It's fun to see Trevor unleash his inner Fosse, running grueling rehearsals and bullying the cool kids for their lack of talent and pizzazz, but it's also barely credible. Would Pinky and his friends put up with Trevor's tyrannical ways? And would they really risk screwing up an intricate production number in front of their friends?

Anyway, the situation exists to set up a wary friendship between Trevor and Pinky, which leads to multiple complications. Among other things, Trevor unwillingly helps Pinky get together with the sweet-natured Frannie and gets maneuvered into taking a friend, Cathy, to the local make out spot, if only to prove he is a regular guy. Meanwhile, Pinky's friends, who can't wait to get rid of Trevor, find his all-too-revealing notebook, spreading it around until it is the talk of the student body.

There are many ways to spin this story and Trevor tries all of them. Collins takes occasional passes at raunchy teen comedy, for example when Walter, Trevor's best friend, conceives a "science project" that involves examining their sperm under a microscope. For fans of straight-up musical comedy, choreographer Josh Prince turns Trevor's fantasies -- including a prom night with Pinky as his dream date -- into slickly staged production numbers. But the mood shifts markedly in the second act as Trevor, cruelly exposed and humiliated, attempts suicide; even here, the creators hedge their bets by camping it up with the addition of Diana Ross singing "Endless Love." Trevor, the character is easy to love; Trevor, the musical is sometimes hard to figure.

Marc Bruni's clever, well-paced direction tries to paper over the show's conflicting tones, but they remain apparent. A running gag about Trevor's oblivious parents and their obsession with John Hinckley's attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan is weird rather than amusing. A sequence in which Trevor is counseled by a clueless Roman Catholic priest is unintentionally creepy. This score, by Collins and Julianne Wick Davis, is conscientious and professionally crafted, but it pales next to the collection of Ross hits on hand, including "Do You Know?," "It's My Turn," and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," among other earworms. The original score's best number, "One of These Days," a duet for Trevor and Pinky, reveals the latter is, in his way, terribly vulnerable and unsure of himself, too.

Sammy Dell finds something touching in Pinky, a decent kid too influenced by peer pressure. Others making an impression are Aryan SImhadri as Walter (geeky and devoted to women's underwear catalogues); Alyssa Emily Marvin as Cathy (forever removing the rubber bands from her braces in anticipation of a necking session); Isabel Medina as Frannie, the show's winsome voice of reason; Yasmeen Sulieman as a suitably starry Diana Ross; and Aaron Alcaraz as the obviously gay candy striper who shows up in Trevor's hospital room to demonstrate that things get better.

The solid production design is dominated by Donyale Werle's two-level school interior, which rapidly converts into Trevor's bedroom and other locations. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting switches efficiently between varied time-of-day looks and bursts of saturated colors for Trevor's feverish daydreams. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes constitute a comically horrible collection of 1981 fashion horrors; Tom Watson's wig/hair design completes the looks. The sound design by Brian Ronan and Cody Spencer is big, bright, and totally intelligible.

Whatever its inconsistencies, Trevor is, arguably, a plausible show for kids, offering be a good conversation-starter on a still-sensitive topic. (They might be surprised to learn that not so long ago any conversation about gay identity was limited to the word "fairy.") If it is unlikely to satisfy more adult audiences, it makes a solid YA musical, and there's nothing wrong with that. And it may go down in the books as the debut of young Hagelberger. --David Barbour

(17 November 2021)

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