Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel’s reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Eli Tokash and cast. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Rachel Weinberg
TREVOR, the soul-stirring and exceptionally executed new musical at Writers Theatre, managed to simultaneously break my heart and make me grin uncontrollably over the course of its two-hour run time. With book and lyrics by Dan Collins, music by Julianne Wick Davis, and direction by Marc Bruni, Writers Theatre has a surefire hit on its hand with this show based upon the Academy Award-winning short film of the same name. Centered on the titular 13-year-old growing up in 1981 and coming to terms with his sexuality, TREVOR captures all the agony of those rough middle school days without ever feeling cliched. As embodied by Trevor, Collins and Davis have so beautifully articulated both the joys and challenges of discovering one’s own identity amidst the turbulence of adolescence. If you have experienced the trying times of middle and high school, I have little doubt that you will identify with this breathtaking piece of theater.
As written on the page, TREVOR is a triumph. Mara Blumenfeld’s period-perfect costumes, Donyale Werle’s clever set, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting help set the show firmly in the 1980s. Writers Theatre yet amplifies the musical’s strength and heart-wrenching story with superlative casting. In the title role, Eli Tokash carries this show on his youthful shoulders and appears in every single scene of TREVOR. That is quite the feat, amplified more so by the fact that Tokash owns every single one of those moments. The 14-year-old Tokash displays the vocal prowess of someone years older and with more professional training, and he is an incredible actor. Whether he’s singing along with his idol and guardian angel of sorts Diana Ross (a dynamic and powerful performance by Salisha Thomas) or flinching as his fellow classmates proclaim him “Weird,” Tokash lends immense depth of feeling to each scene. He also delivers Josh Prince’s spirited choreography with apparent ease and ceaseless energy. This show asks so much physically and emotionally of Tokash as he forms the show’s empathetic center, but he never falters.
Trevor’s classmates are played by a combination of teenagers and professional actors who have already earned undergraduate degrees in performance. It is a testament to the younger performers that they completely hold their own throughout the show. On the whole, the ensemble is dynamite. They sail through Davis’s complex melodies and act the hell out of the group numbers, particularly the taunting “Weird” and the anticipatory and awkward “Can’t Wait,” which embodies the uncomfortable throes of budding middle school romance. Tori Whaples is superlative as Trevor’s close friend Cathy, who belts her act two solo “What’s Wrong with Me?” like nobody’s business. As the quintessential middle school bully Mary, Eloise Lushina showcases her terrific singing and formidable acting chops—she proves the character is not someone you want to cross in the hallway. As Mary’s quieter friend Frannie, Maya Lou Hlava also turns out a lovely performance. As football team captain Pinky and the eye of Trevor’s affection, Declan Desmond also turns out a multifaceted performance that goes beyond jock stereotypes. Trevor and Pinky’s duet “One of These Days” is a highlight in the score as it beautifully articulates those dreams of post-adolescent life.
Throughout the entire show, Collins and Davis brilliantly musicalize the exciting and painful moments of middle school. TREVOR is filled with such genuine feeling. I was instantly pulled into the show and held rapt until the end. The musical has a heartwarming message about staying true to your identity and not being afraid to let your true self shine (after all, the original short film is what gave rise to The Trevor Project), but it never feels didactic. Showcasing one adolescent’s struggles with emerging sexuality in the role of Trevor saves this show from ever feeling preachy and instead roots this message in Trevor’s own experience. If TREVOR is any indication, the future of new musicals is bright—and hopefully too the experiences of LGBTQ teens will also become ever brighter.