BJ Gruber, Hayley Anna Norris, Devin Ilaw & Mark Coffin in 'Wearing Black' Rehearsals | Photo by Antonio Minino
In 2012 Riley Thomas rocked New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) with Stuck, which was later made into a full-length feature film starring Giancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, and pop songstress Ashanti. This year, he returned to NYMF with his new musical Wearing Black, a rock musical that follows in the footsteps of successful NYMF pieces like Next to Normal. In Wearing Black, Thomas focuses on themes of self-discovery and how we deal with tragic loss.
The show's main character, Evan finds himself in a troubling predicament after his twin brother Charlie suddenly passes away. Slipping into a world of self-destruction, Evan must come to terms with the volatile relationship he had with his twin and discover his true self in the face of his grief. Devin Ilaw, who played Evan with stirring emotional sincerity, says: "Wearing Black is absolutely necessary theatre because it is gritty, dark, and unapologetically real. Addiction is something very present in our society today, especially among young folk." Like so many do, Evan uses drugs and alcohol to escape his grief. Both Thomas's show and Ilaw's portrayal of Evan unflinchingly examines the realities of these mistakes.
BJ Gruber, who played Evan's friend Nate with aplomb, echoes Ilaw's sentiments about the necessity of this musical, explaining: "It's important that we deal with difficult topics. Our current market is saturated with escapism. I want more for us. I want to learn. I want to take people on emotional roller coasters that may or may not give them different perspectives on their own problems." His own character is grieving the loss of a friend, but is given a chance at happiness when Alyssa, Evan's best friend, accepts Nate's marriage proposal. As can be expected in the world of dramatic musicals though, this happiness only offers a brief reprieve before Nate must face his own sorrows.
Even though the audience is most invested in Evan's journey to self-actualization, all the characters in the musical undergo the process of self-discovery through coping with various forms of heartbreak. Truly, the death of Evan's twin shakes the entire ensemble of young characters out of the stupor of complacency, forcing them to face life head on. "Everybody thinks they know who they are. I think how people deal with difficult circumstances showcases who they truly are," says Gruber. "No one is perfect, but everybody does the best they can," he elaborates. "Wearing Black shows us that there are always people around us to help us through those times, and that it is never too late to find one's self and start over again with hope and positivity," adds Ilaw.
While the run of Wearing Black at NYMF has come to an end, this musical promises to be one audiences haven't seen the last of. Gruber says he hopes to see it staged away from the festival because "Something that we miss in NYMF is the lighter moments of Wearing Black that I think will help people process the more difficult moments of the show. Due to time constraints we had to cut three scenes that provide more comedic relief."
Also looking forward to post-NYMF productions Ilaw hopes future audiences will get to see the show because it teaches us that "you only get one life," so we must "live it impeccably well and celebrate it with the people around you."