Greasepaint Youtheatre in Scottsdale is performing the musical “13″ through Sunday, Sept. 16. It’s a playful show featuring profound observations about the perils of pursuing popularity at all costs. The lead character, a boy named Evan, moves with his mom from New York City to the Midwest after his parents divorce — and the timing couldn’t be worse. Soon he’ll turn 13, so plans are underway for the bar mitzvah he’s convinced will set the course for the rest of his life. Parents set some pretty high expectations for tweens, but few are greater than the pressure tweens place on themselves.
The musical “13″ explores what Childsplay associate artist Debra K. Stevens describes as something akin to the “black hole” of child development. It’s middle school, and it’s daunting. Choosing one friend can mean leaving another behind. Labeling others can bring unintended consequences. Following your heart requires overcoming your fear. For some, it’s a time of first kisses, wardrobe obsessions and all the awkwardness that comes with feeling like what you do during any given minute might have lifelong consequences. It’s a dreadful blend of the now with eternity.
Stevens says the themes of “13″ resonate best with kids ages 11 to 15, but it’s also plenty entertaining for parents and others who’ve endured youthful encounters with gossip, stereotypes, self-doubt and shifting social circles. During Friday’s opening night performance, lines like “Boys are so stupid, no wonder you’re not girls” were met with laughter from children, teens and adults in the audience. Other gems include “My mom’s awake and weaning herself off the meds,” “My mother says pretending to like it prepares you for marriage,” “A Ritalin and a Red Bull and I’m ready for anything” and “The inbreeding takes up a lot of time.” And yes, there’s even one quick mention of a five-letter “P-word.”
But don’t let concerns about such things keep you from taking children to see the show. If we never exposed our kids to such things, we’d miss valuable opportunities to reflect on how we make choices and the changes that come with moving beyond childhood. Were my children still young, I’d likely engage them in a conversation about labels and language after seeing “13″ — suggesting that words like “lame,” “cripple,” “geek” and “so gay” aren’t appropriate descriptors for their peers. One of the musical’s main characters, Archie, attends a special needs class because of a neuromuscular disorder — and sometimes throws the term “terminal illness” around to get his way. There’s plenty there to discuss as well.
Music and lyrics for “13″ were written by Jason Robert Brown, and the musical features book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn. It’s directed for Greasepaint Youtheatre by Tracy Bailey, with musical direction by Reynaldo Spears and choreography by Tasha Spear. April Rozier is stage manager. Costume and prop design are by Tracy Bailey, Tiffany Conner, Maureen Dias and April Rozier. Dias is Greasepaint Youtheatre’s executive and artistic director. Set design is by Chase Budden, lighting design is by Dale Nakagawa and sound design is by Pete Bish. Sets and lighting are simple but sufficient, and doing more with less should be highly praised in a world where theater and other art opportunities for youth are grossly underfunded, especially compared to athletics.
An orchestra conducted by Reynaldo J. Saenz features Christopher Rose on bass, Jason Brown and John Luders on guitar, Brad Stell on drums and Saenz on piano. Live music is always a treat, but I found myself wishing at times that they’d play just a bit softer so vocalists didn’t appear strained while singing over them. Ensemble vocals were especially strong during “All Hail the Brain” — and the “Opportunity” number featured some of the show’s best choreography. My favorite vocal performances included “What It Means To Be a Friend” by Breagh Watson (Patrice) and Zoe Zamora’s (Charlotte) “A Little More Homework” solos. In the funny department, scenes featuring the songs “Hey Kendra” and “Bad Bad News” can’t be beat.
Greasepaint’s “13″ stars Matt Merritt as Evan, and Aaron Zweiback as Archie. Evan is the boy at the heart of the story, who holds a bar mitzvah he’s perfectly happy with after discovering who his real friends are. Archie is the boy with steel forearm crutches, a social outcast like his friend Patrice. Zweiback’s mastered the nuance that makes Archie the musical’s most memorable character. The show’s 29 cast members include Donovan Fiore (Brett), Alyssa Gonzalez (Cassie), Adam Hays (Simon), Liz Grannis (Lucy), Andrey Lull (Malcolm), Alex Partida (Richie), Celine Sanel (Molly) and Johanna Watson (Kendra). Sawyer Bland rocks the role of Rabbi. Expect plenty of Jewish-related humor throughout the show’s dialogue and musical numbers.
For tweens and teens, the musical “13″ is a rousing reminder that adolescence is a bridge rather than a barrier, a transition best traversed with humor and humility. For adults, it’s a funny flashback to times filled with big worries about small things. Parents who see “13″ will pause to consider the pressures facing modern youth, and feel inspired to reflect on ways they can help their own children through the journey of self-discovery. As one of the musical’s final numbers makes clear, we’ve all got “a little more homework to do.”
Click here to learn more about “13″ and the rest of Greasepaint Youtheatre’s 2012/13 season — which includes “Sweeney Todd School Edition,” “Disney’s The Little Mermaid JR.,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Dear Edwina.”