MUSIC at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center
“I think it’s a show for 13-year-olds. That was the intention – to create a show that kids could call their own. I really struggled with any perception that it’s just a kids’ show, but at the same time, I wanted 13-year-olds to look up there and recognize themselves.”
In 2007, composer Jason Robert Brown addressed the words quoted above to a playwright from Los Angeles Daily News (OK, that was me) discussing his new musical, 13, which was about to have its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. At the time, one of the really interesting things about Brown’s creative spin on a spiny age (and an unlucky number) was that the musical would employ exactly 13 actors, and each of the cast and band members would belong to the adolescent population. Initially, I thought every company member and musician would actually be 13 years old. But no… I didn’t remember correctly. The players were all between 12 and 17 years old.
Now 17 is most certainly not 13, and while high school teenagers can certainly law like middle school kids (and if they’re playing a role, they’re supposed to), we need to be able to accept the “everyone is 13” without the visuals getting in the way. When a character talks about potentially offering “what comes after second base,” the message lands differently when she looks out of place at the prom.
These questions intervene to some extent in the staging of 13 by Panic Productions and Born to Perform Studio at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. On the whole, the children are doing more than well; sometimes a little rough around the edges, but again, this musical is too. In this third staging of the musical, Panic director Barry Pearl, musical director Lloyd Cooper and a cast of 19 give this heartfelt ode to self-discovery the sizzle and liveliness it deserves.
13 is a pleasant and quite tame musical, which does not change the situation. Brown with his book authors Dan Eilish and Robert Horn sand down the most jagged edges of early teens and wrap it up for easy handling. Yes, some children treat themselves terribly. Yes, everyone – popular or not – experiences the same hormonal angst. Yes, the cream will rise to the top and the good instincts will triumph over the bad and some of us will be able to kiss (or hug) and make up at the party.
No, not the ball…this time it’s a planned bar mitzvah where our future hero, Evan Goldman (played by Ethan Daugherty) joins his fellow thirteen-year-olds in a song called “Brand new You” and finally , also in the far more appropriate “A Little More Homework”. Note to Panic: It would be great to to listen these words clearly. Although the SVCCA was a comfortable venue, the body mics were spotty on opening night, making the acoustics problematic on opening night.
To the play… Evan’s journey took him from New York to the backcountry of Walkerton, Indiana following his parents’ divorce. As if being 13 isn’t enough, he’s uprooted from everything he knows in a town where there’s nothing to do and where he’ll eventually be the center of attention at his youngest’s biggest party ever. life. The bar mitzvah is, symbolically, when a Jewish boy becomes a man. But for Evan, if he doesn’t throw the party the right way, with the right crowd in attendance, he risks finding himself forever ostracized by the cool kids. Nicknamed “The Brain” because he comes up with some slightly devious good ideas, Evan plots and plans his way to creating the Jack Brett (Lucas Panczel) school, along with Kendra (Olivia Zenetzis), a cheerleader who loves Brett as much as he loves her. Trouble is, Kendra’s conniving best friend, Lucy (Calista Loter), wants Brett for herself and will plot as only a 13-year-old can plot to get him.
And these are the popular children. Evan’s new best friend – until he does a few dirty tricks to him – is his neighbor, Patrice (Mia Akemi Brown), a misfit regularly tortured by the rest of the school. And then there’s Archie (Peter Umipig), whose affliction with muscular dystrophy does nothing to win him any friends. Archie also loves Kendra, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get close to her, including blackmailing Evan. So Evan’s order is big: appease the cool kids at school into coming to his Bar Mitzvah while doing good for the unpopular kids who are his true friends. And become a man.
(Incidentally, while it’s doubtful that the creators of 13 and THE PROM got together, one wonders how Indiana became the popular choice as the “dumbest place on earth?” Incidentally, between Mr. Goldman and Mr. Hansen a decade later, the Evanses of the world might start to make a name for themselves for their uncool behavior).
But back to Panic’s 13… Besides a brief video appearance by Evan’s Rabbi (played by David Shukiar), the show is for kids, the whole time and Pearl, Cooper and choreographer Michelle Elkin harnessed some real vocal talent and fantastic energy. among their distribution and use it wisely. The ensemble numbers (notably the opening “Thirteen” and the aforementioned “A Little More Homework”) provide a window into all of the characters while letting all of their collective hormones, exuberance, and doubts run rampant. In groups, these actors cook.
Individually, many of these characters fall into stock categories: brutal and stupid jock, naive beauty queen, and so on. The actors do their best to break them out of the stereotypes of Eilish and Horn’s book, but it’s not an easy battle. Misfits fare better. Brown’s Patrice deftly mixes humor, neediness, and pride, making Patrice just about the only character with a consistent moral compass; Honestly, given how much of a winner Brown is, we’re almost rooting for her to ditch Evan for the reckless thug that he is. Complicating matters is this production’s lack of strength at its core. Although his singing is solid, Daugherty feels lost as Evan, rarely tapping into the character’s brain, sadness, or inner turmoil.
Umipig is doing a solid job with Archie. Infusing crippled Archie with irony, a dollop of Machiavelli and not a hint of self-pity, the actor gives this complicated kid some real clout. He’s, unsurprisingly, the subject of the decidedly unawakened song “Terminal Illness,” a number this production ickifies by putting the female chorus in borderline sexualized nurse outfits.
13: The musical, it should be noted, is having a moment thanks to a recent film adaptation for Netflix which, of course, uses adult characters. A look back at the original Broadway production credits list reveals that the show marked the debuts of Graham Phillips and Ariana Grande.
Panic!/BTPS players could be doomed for similar success. They have homework to do (like what teenagers don’t have), but if their job here is any indication, they’re on the right track.
13 THE MUSICAL plays until September 18 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center
Photo of (LR) Mia Akemi-Brown, Peter Umipig and Ethan Daugherty courtesy of Panic! Productions.