Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area

Lucky 13

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13 is a musical about one of the most awkward ages known to mankind in western civilization: turning thirteen. When it originally ran on Broadway five years ago, it was not a success. (More about that later.). Upon its closure, many felt that the show was through forever. But a funny thing happened over the last five years–the show has become a success in community and secondary school theatres.

The original production used tweens and early teens as actors and musicians but was lost in the scale of a huge Broadway production. It needed intimacy so that the audience and the actors can connect. This show needs actors who can seem vulnerable, naive, quixotic, and selfish without seeming polished or cartoonish. In order to achieve this, 13 needs a smaller space.

It is hard to get much smaller a space than the Weekend Theater. While sometimes that theatre is over ambitious in the scale of its production choices, 13 is the right size and type of musical for the space. Luckily, it was chosen to kickoff the 2103-14 season; it runs through Sunday, June 23.

As written by Rick Elish & Robert Horn (book), 13 is reminscent of an afterschool special or “very special episode” of a sitcom. It deals with acceptance, bullying, first love and a plethora of teen issues. In an 100 minute show, it hardly gives any topic much depth or explores too much character motivation. This facile approach, however, ensures that the actors are able to play their characters with honesty. They are not out to wow the audience with polished bravura performances that border on cute or cloying. It would not be reasonable to ask young actors to carry a show the length of Les Mis, but asking them to carry this length of show is reasonable.

What depth the musical does have comes in the form of the score by Jason Robert Brown. While Brown has written a score in a style and range that works with voices in that awkward transition on the cusp of maturity, he has also imbued it with emotional honesty. His songs capture the horrors, humor and heartbreak of being in junior high. This score is not necessarily “Broadway” but it is also not the Broadway concept of a rock score (which very rarely approaches rock). These are casual art songs, heartfelt ballads and peppy numbers reminiscent of kids TV.

The central character in 13 is Evan, played at the Weekend Theater by Will Frueauff. One cannot teach comic timing–a person has it or doesn’t. Frueauff has it. With an arched eyebrow, tilted head or slight gesture, he masterfully captured the numerous funny moments which keep this character from being pathetic. The audience feels his awkwardness but also his kindness and remorse . Through Frueauff’s performance, the audience roots for him to succeed, not out of pity but because he is a decent guy. He also displayed a nice singing voice as he handled a veritable parade of songs and emotions.

Casey Labbate and Ethan Patterson play two other outcasts–though less concerned with fitting in than Evan. These could be dour, sour, pitiful characters. Instead Labbate and Patterson flesh them out. They had a nice chemistry with each other and Frueauff. If there were a contest to see which of them has the most deadpan delivery, it would probably end up like most soccer games–a tie.

As the BMOC, Ryan Owens was goofily charming. He exhibited a nice flair for physical comedy and was able to turn on a dime from bashful to bully. Stephanie Schoonmaker displayed a pleasant singing voice as the cheerleader captain. She was honestly sweet without being syrupy. Khloe Richardson’s mean girl was a force with which to reckon. She was manipulative without being obvious. Though the closest thing to a villain in the show, Richardson still evoked sympathy or at least empathy.

Each of the other cast members had a chance to shine whether through acting, singing or dancing. Brian Earles, Diondre Wright, Autumn Romines, Madeleine Robinson, Rachel Caffey, Matthew Glover and Jeffrey Oakley ably populated this mythical world known as adolescence.

I have had the chance to see many of these performers on stage in other productions or in forensics competitions. It is always a pleasure to see them in a different arena. Rarely do tweens and teens get to play parts their own age. While obviously still playing characters, these actors seemed very comfortable in these roles. They know these people–they see them every day.

The cast was directed by Hannah M Sawyer. As a junior high speech and drama teacher, she knows something about how kids this age behave. Sawyer ensured that the performers were honest to the situation, the script and the score. A talented actor in her own right, she tapped into the actors’ talents and focused them on serving the story. In so doing, the show reminds the audience that “fitting in” does not end after one reaches the age of 13.

Watching this production caused a few flashbacks to junior high. They weren’t to bad moments or even good moments–just moments, feelings, that sense of possibility. Theatre is supposed to transport the audience–back, forward, elsewhere. I would not want to go back to junior high or high school (and this musical underscores that once is enough for adolescent angst). It is nice to be reminded of a time when getting into an R rated movie was one’s biggest concern and to reflect on the journeys made by my classmates and myself since those days.

Given the talent on the stage, it is also nice to enjoy the performances and contemplate future performances these actors may deliver.

The Weekend Theater’s production of 13 is, indeed, a lucky convergence of place, actors and director which serve the piece well.

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