(CNN) — “Trevor: The Musical” can’t help but feel partly encumbered by the “important” label, bringing lessons about self-acceptance to Disney+, whose parent company has been a ripe target for controversy. Yet this filmed version of the off-Broadway show works as a triumph for the young cast and especially the relatable lead, powering past its lesser aspects with infectious energy and a touching message.
Building a musical around the Oscar-winning 1995 short film that inspired the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention program for LGBTQ youth, wasn’t an obvious fit. Nor do the songs consistently rise to the level that would make this a top-tier production, especially juxtaposed with the Diana Ross numbers from which the title character derives strength and inspiration.
Still, there’s something sweet and universal about the plight of Trevor, the 13-year-old boy at its core, and even more so Holden William Hagelberger, the Sugar Land, Texas teen chosen to play him after a nationwide search.
The fact that Hagelberger is the same age as the character and looks it makes the whole exercise more impactful, as he impressively sings, dances and emotionally wrestles with his character’s new and confusing crush on classmate Pinky (Sammy Dell), baring his soul to his diary and the imagined Ross (Yasmeen Sulieman), who appears to him with words of encouragement in glittering gowns.
Set in 1981, a timeframe established by the fact that Trevor’s tone-deaf parents are preoccupied by the assassination attempt on President Reagan, “Trevor” nicely captures the period, when, the survival mechanism for LGBTQ youth was not coming out but hiding. Even so, Trevor can’t help trying to express himself, leaping at the chance to choreograph an appearance by the basketball team at a school rally, wanting to do something more fabulous than have them simply appear in drag.
Mostly, the preparation for that event gives Trevor an opportunity/excuse to hang around with Pinky, although that spells danger for him on a variety of fronts, drawing attention from the cruel and popular kids while alienating his nerdy friends (Aryan Simhadri and Alyssa Emily Marvin), who join him in a triangle of hopeless teen crushes.
With a book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis, “Trevor” leads toward the exposure of Trevor’s feelings, and the crushing weight that places upon him. Hagelberger is particularly strong in those sequences, and when he tears down his Ross posters in a desperate attempt to be “normal” (“I tried to cure myself, but nothing worked”), your heart breaks for him.
Disney is hardly a stranger to angst-ridden adolescents — Disney Channel is filled with them — which doesn’t prevent this from being symbolically significant. After shying away from LGBTQ content, Disney+ has gradually become more inclusive, recently adding “Love, Victor” from sister service Hulu, so “Trevor” represents another small but notable step.
It’s difficult to divorce this Pride-month-timed presentation from the context of the studio’s relationship with LGBTQ issues, including recent clashes over Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation — criticized first by employees for being slow to respond to their concerns, then by state officials when the studio finally spoke out. In such situations, Disney’s family brand can be as much a curse as a blessing.
Disney also has a long and rich tradition of musicals, with “Hamilton” making a major streaming splash during the pandemic and “Better Nate Than Ever” recently joining its younger-demo roster that includes franchises like “High School Musical” and “Zombies.”
Setting aside other considerations, “Trevor” marks a nice addition to that queue. And yes, an important one, too.
“Trevor: The Musical” premieres June 24 on Disney+.
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