Panic! Productions’ “13” Packs Powerful Pubescent Punch

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

Jason Robert Brown’s 13, a jubilant paean to teenage angst, only had a brief stay on Broadway (105 performances over only two months), but the producers of the original production must have realized the potential gold mine they had in the show, which has played endlessly in middle and high school productions ever since it closed in New York in 2009. Even more than its Broadway brethren (Bye, Bye BirdieGrease, and Footloose)13 provides not only easy casting for teens, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch for its young thespians to get into the characters. 13 was the first Broadway show to feature an ensemble consisting exclusively of performers under eighteen, and with Brown’s bubbly, teen-friendly rock score, it has become a mainstay in school and youth group productions.

Panic! Productions’ current version of the musical, which plays through April 19 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, uses a dynamic cast, an exemplary band, and astute direction by Barry Pearl, to produce a version that scores on all levels. Pearl was a natural choice to direct this, as he has had personal experience performing as a boy, when, at age 11, he played Randolph McAfee in the original Broadway production of Bye, Bye Birdie.

Pearl has assembled a wonderful cast for 13, with each managing to fill out its thinly drawn characters. Most of these are stereotypes: Evan, the wide-eyed transfer student eager to be popular, Patrice, the loyal but geeky best friend, Kendra, the vacuous but sweet-natured cheerleader, and Lucy, the predatory diva.

The main premise revolves around twelve-year-old Evan, a recent transfer from from New York to Appleton, Indiana, who finds himself embroiled in a social caste system at his adopted middle school. On one side is Brett, a brutish jock who decides who is to be accepted into his inner circle. On the other are the social outcasts, which include Patrice as well as Archie, a glib kid stricken with muscular distrophy who uses his disability to manipulate Evan into getting him a date with Kendra, everyone’s dream girl. Evan is crushed between these two factions, and spends much of the show playing one against the other; his own goal is to get as many kids as possible to attend his forthcoming bar mitzvah. In the Jewish faith, a boy transforms into a man when he turns 13, but ironically, Evan first has to make some real, adult decisions as to how to ingratiate himself with his schoolmates.

As Evan, eighth grader Sam Herbert combines charisma with a sweet singing voice in the show’s central role. Carly Shukiar plays Patrice with superb acting instincts and provides depth to her offbeat but sensitive character. The two make an attractive pair; they are especially effective in their duet “Tell Her,” in which they start out by giving Brett advice on how to talk to Kendra, but end up communicating the message of forthright directness to each other. It’s a sweet and honest moment in the show and quite well done by both.

Antonia Vivino, in speaking of her character, Lucy, admitted after the opening night performance that she would never want Lucy for a friend. Lucy is opportunistic, vicious, disloyal, and conniving. One of the best moments in the show has Vivino singing, with attitude, “Opportunity,” played to a muscular Bo Diddley beat. (The song was cut from the original Broadway production but reinserted when it was released to regional companies.) Even though dance solos are not in the script, Vivino’s superior dancing abilities had to have a spotlight, so Pearl magnanimously gave her an opportunity to execute some pirouettes and fancy dance steps during the show’s finale.

Samuel Thacker is completely convincing as Archie, and has some great comic moments, especially in his scheming Act I solo, “Get Me What I Need.” Gabriel Nunag, who most recently was wonderful in Young Artists Ensemble’s Aladdin Jr., shows that he is just as good playing a heel in his performance as Brett. Brett’s slavish minions, Eddie and Malcolm, are well-played, respectively, by Mackinnley Balleweg and Mateo Gonzales. As Kendra, Elaine Panico adds an empty-headed sweetness to her character. Madeline Gambon plays the gullible Charlotte and although she is a relatively minor character, showcases a powerful singing voice in the reggae-flavored “It Can’t Be True” and the show’s finale, “Brand New You.” Liam Krainman is the quiet, unassuming Simon, who manages to get in the middle of any controversy but is mainly interested in making time with Charlotte. Mason Purece is Richie, another of Brett’s hangers-on who is excellent in the quartet “Bad Bad News,” which also features Balleweg, Gonzales, and Krainman. Zoe Reed gives a confident portrayal as Molly, a gossip-monger who likes to start rumors and watch as they spread like wildfire. Batya Conn is stylish as another gossip, the fashion-conscious Cassie.

All the named characters, plus the talented ensemble players: Tate Downing, Delaney Joy, Ally Kaplan, Jade McGlynn (who was down with illness on Saturday night), Allison Martinez, and Joey Maya, complete the cast – their stellar dancing with the rest of the performers is one of the most entertaining parts of the show. Credit goes to uber-talented choreographer Keenon Hooks for creating the dynamic and visually invigorating dance moves. Diann Alexander did an equally fabulous job as musical director; kids of this age normally excel first as actors and dancers while their singing takes longer to mature, but in this case, most, if not all of the performers presented strong, polished, on-pitch vocals.

Jeff Gibson led the accomplished four-piece rock band (Jeff Castanon, guitar; Sasha Chookey, drums, and Art Gibson, bass), housed behind a scrim at center stage. The simple but utilitarian set, designed by Rei Yamamoto, consisting of an elevated, stage-length runway, with the band in the middle, was well-suited to the large cast, providing ample opportunities for all the performers to be seen simultaneously.

Kristi Reed supplied the age-appropriate costumes, which neatly fit each actor’s personality, while lighting was designed by Shaun Hara.

13 may be a musical starring kids, but it’s a generation-crossing show designed for adults to enjoy as well. After all, we also remember those years of hormonal anxiety, when the desire for conformity battled with our growth as individuals.

If only these characters would listen to young adult fiction writer David Levithan, who wrote in Marly’s Ghost, “Life goes on. Get over it. You’re still young. It’ll get better. Blah, Blah, Blah.”

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13 plays through April 19 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. For dates and showtimes, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.

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