13: The Musical may have only ran for about three months on Broadway in the fall of 2008, but it made history as the first and only musical with an all-teenage cast and band. It’s a show that I didn’t get to see during its short Broadway run as it opened and closed between trips, but I was excited to learn that Star Performance Academy would be presenting it for two weekends so I could finally see it. I expected it to be at the very least passable because of the involvement of musician Jason Robert Brown, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be quite a vibrant and relevant show, perfectly suited for large cast of teens and pre-teens.
Drew Adams is Evan, a Jewish kid transplanted from Manhattan to Appleton, Indiana, after his parents’ divorce. He’s a fish out of water, but quickly befriends his neighbor, Patrice (winningly played by Kate Glaser). Evan looks forward to turning thirteen in the fall and having his bar mitzvah, expecting it to be the party that will help him gain popularity with his classmates. Once school starts he finds that his friendship with Patrice threatens his budding friendship with “cool kids” Brett (future heart-breaker David Rausch, who also throws a great stage punch), Kendra (Marin Tillman), and Lucy (Samantha Stepp). Evan has to learn to be true to himself and deal with the cliques and peer pressures of junior high school, something easier said than done when entering a battlefield where teams were divided long before he ever showed up.
The book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn is clever and smart. The teens speak the way I hear real teens speak, minus the cruder language. The kids are precocious and not politically-correct, that’s for sure, but I’m so glad that what they say hasn’t been sanitized to the point of being banal. One of the big plot points involves French kissing and getting to “bases,” but there is nothing here that would shock anyone over the age of ten, though it may make some of the adults nervous about an impending conversation. Jason Robert Brown’s songs propel the action forward and are simple but effective, and the kids appear to really enjoy singing them.
It takes a special director to corral all of these kids and keep them focused on the task at hand, and director Keely Kurtas-Chapman does just that. The play is performed in one act totaling around a hundred minutes and never drags for a moment. Choreographer Marrett Laney (I enjoyed seeing her as Martha Jefferson in Pickerington Community Theatre’s 1776 this summer) devises some inventive dances for the large cast, at one point bringing them out into the audience to great effect. There is a palpable sense of joy to be experienced here, and I only wish I had been as fortunate as these kids to have such an opportunity at their age.
Special attention needs to be given to Keegan Sells as Archie, a kid living with muscular dystrophy. Mr. Sells manages his crutches like a pro and delivers every line to maximum comedic effect; he’s a scene-stealer to watch out for. McKinley Witt as Charlotte doesn’t have a big role but has a solo near the end that allows her crystalline voice to shine. Sabrina Brush as Molly has a great presence and strong stage voice, another talent that stands out. Bella Eberhardt plays Eddie with a backwards ball cap and scowl that would make any boy proud. I also enjoyed recognizing Raydn Allbaugh (Richie) from seeing him in Pickerington Community Theatre’s Oliver! back in May, and I just saw Taryn Huffman (Cassie) in Shots in the Dark’s Big Fish a few weeks ago.
This is my first time attending the Star Performance Academy, and I’m glad my phone could lead me there as I don’t know my way around the east side of Columbus (towards Blacklick) very well. The maroon and green building is across the street from Niagara Bottling on Eastgate Plaza, and a makeshift sign directs people to park in Niagara’s lot due to the limited parking. The building itself has a comfortable lobby, large stage, and an auditorium that seems to double as a dancing area with ballet bars and mirrored walls and collapsible chairs put out for the show. If this performance of 13: The Musical is any indication, Star Performance Academy appears to be a grand training ground for future theatre talent as well as great center for kids within this sometimes awkward age group to learn to work together towards a common goal – putting on a show.
The only detriment to my experience (and I hate having to report it) was the wildly erratic sound at the performance I attended. I’m used to sometimes mics going out or not being live when they need to be for dialogue to be heard, but from the very beginning of this performance it was clear something had seriously gone wrong. Drew Adams (playing Evan, the main character) had a mic that was cutting in and out continuously, and they kept raising the volume, introducing loud white noise and static as his voice would continue to go in and out. Other performers experienced similar issues with screeching distortion particularly affecting David Rausch (Brett) and Keegan Sells (Archie) during their solo moments in the second half of the show. Only Samantha Stepp (Lucy) had a mic that caused no problems (which was nice as her singing voice was melodic and beautiful), and I’d be lying if I said the sound problems were minor. Was a sound check done before the performance? It was bad enough that it took a lot of effort to try to hear past it to enjoy the show; I doubt anyone would’ve minded had they stopped to try to correct whatever was causing the myriad of sound issues (it seemed mostly family and friends were in the audience). The cast worked through the sound issues, but even they seemed a little annoyed when they would hear the screeching and crackling that varied as they would move around the stage. It would’ve been better had they simply shut the mics off and used the standing mics for whatever sound they would pick up, but this wasn’t done.
Still, I’m glad I saw 13: The Musical, and I enjoyed the story, the songs, and the ebullient efforts of its large adolescent cast. I hope the sound issues I experienced were an anomaly that affected only the Saturday matinee that I attended. The cast deserves a strong technical crew to make sure they are being heard properly as they are doing a terrific job of telling the story.
*** out of ****
(** if they don’t sort out the sound issues that plagued the performance I attended)
13: The Musical continues through to August 15th at Star Performance Academy at 1701 Eastgate Plaza (the address is Columbus, but in reality it’s on the edge of Blacklick), and more information can be found at http://www.starperformanceacademy.org/shows.asp
I came to Big Fish having not read the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel nor seen the 2003 Tim Burton acclaimed film. It was one of those properties that was recommended to me but that I had never gotten around to exploring. I never attended the short-lived 2013 Broadway production of the musical either as it arrived and disappeared between NYC theatre trips. Aside from listening to the cast recording once, I was about as clean a slate as can be when I attended Shots in the Dark’s production of Big Fish last night in Upper Arlington. Though I don’t have anything Big Fish-related to compare it to, I walked away thoroughly entertained.
With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party and The Addams Family) and a book by the film’s screenwriter, John August, Big Fish is the story of Will Bloom (Johnpaul Adams), a newlywed and soon-to-be-father, and his quest to understand his ailing father, Edward (Chris Ceradsky), whose life was told to him in tall tales rather than hard facts. Edward tells stories of being taught how to swim by a mermaid (Catherine Huffman), meeting a circus ringmaster/werewolf named Amos Calloway (Thai Sribanditmongkol), befriending a giant named Karl (Bruce Hoffman), learning of his own death by a witch (Madeline Elizabeth), and meeting the love of his life, Sandra (Kristen Basore). As he digs deeper into his father’s life, he learns secrets about Edward’s high school sweetheart, Jenny Hill (Nicole Fowles, with Taryn Huffman playing her in flashbacks) and how he worked to save his hometown.
Chris Ceradsky as Edward Bloom plays older without using any silly aging makeup, preferring to transform using his posture and gait. He’s affable and sweet but remains an enigma, much like the character. Chris inhabits this role more easily than he did in Shots in the Dark’s Reasons to Be Pretty a few weeks back, but he still seems a bit uncomfortable in his own skin. His singing voice suffers in many scenes, but I have it on authority from the director that he lost his voice earlier in the week and is just now getting it back. The audience was rooting for him though, and one needs only to look in his twinkling eyes during the finale to know that his emotions were real.
Johnpaul Adams as Will Bloom plays frustrated well, and he rides a fine line trying not to overpower Chris with his stronger singing voice. Objectively, Johnpaul looks to be older in actual age than Chris as his father, but they work well together at creating that sometimes conflict-ridden familial relationship. Johnpaul has great timing, knowing which lines will bring laughs and how best to deliver them.
Kristen Basore is Sandra Bloom, even more delightful and striking than she was in Reasons to Be Pretty in which she also played Chris’s love interest. She also is probably younger than Johnpaul as her son, but she pulls off the older maternal persona like a pro, particularly affecting during a scene in which she and Johnpaul dance. Her voice is clear and singing voice strong, and she really goes for the open-mouthed kiss with Chris during the scene when he tracks her down at college and proposes! This may be a strange thing to comment on, but Kristen also looks strong and sure-footed in heels, more secure along some of her less experienced co-stars that wobble ever so slightly from time to time.
Thai Sribanditmongkol is a standout as Amos Calloway and many other small roles, his voice being one that is firm and carries well on the stage. His versatility is remarkable, and I hope to see him in future productions. Also noteworthy is Lynn Moyer playing Zacky Price and other small parts, fearless in her attempts to elicit laughter from the audience and always succeeding.
Bruce Huffman is a lovable Karl, navigating his stilts as the giant with grace; his daughters Taryn and Catherine Huffman bring eye candy to their numerous parts, and their joy in being in the production is apparent. Madeline Elizabeth as the witch and Nicole Fowles as Jenny Hill round out the proficient supporting cast and are also game at dancing and doubling in other small parts. Choreographer Gigi Cook Thompson brings life to several dance scenes, the funniest involving one that apparently causes fish to leap from the sea!
Siblings Carly and Tanner Sells also deserve honorable mentions for their numerous small parts. The youngest members of the cast, Carly and Tanner look to be having just as good a time as everyone else; Tanner is particularly cute in a lion costume.
Director Patrick McGregor II has really outdone himself in staging and designing this beautiful production, with bold Technicolor lighting and long drapes strategically placed. The staging made full use of the extreme sides of the stage and extended out in the auditorium for a few scenes. Limited set pieces were used throughout, instead relying on lighting changes and placement around the stage to evoke changing locations. It all came together beautifully, and the cast was game at keeping the tone consistent and the energy up. There are times when the actors’ voices were drowned out by the music, but otherwise the sound was more than adequate to support the storytelling.
There is a lot of fantasy at play in Big Fish as well as a message about being true to oneself; “Be the Hero of Your Story,” as one of the songs states. Truth isn’t the same as fact, and Will’s realization that the truth about his father’s nature and spirit were always on display even if the facts weren’t is an important message. I guess we all have a hard time accepting that are parents are regular people with just as many strengths and weaknesses as anyone else. My favorite song from the score, “Fight the Dragons,” should be everyone’s anthem for a purpose-filled life. Big Fish has wholesomeness and charm to spare, and I hope its life and reputation continues to grow; this production shows that the elements are there for an entertaining and memorable evening.
To those unfamiliar with Upper Arlington High School and the location of its Little Theatre (like I was), I offer some advice. The high school is indeed located at 1650 Ridgeview Road, but you’ll want to circle the block, pass the sports field, and enter the parking area on Mount Holyoke Road to what appears to be the rear of the school. I didn’t see any signs signifying where to go or what entrance to use (I hope they have some set up outside for the remaining performances), but I entered a lobby near the parking area where there was a large taxidermied bear to the left. If you see that bear, keep walking forward and you’ll pass the larger theatre and a bunch of posters for past productions in the high school. You’ll eventually get to the Little Theatre on your left and the ticket and concession booth just past it. Trust me, the show is worth the bit of extra effort to find it.
*** out of ****
Big Fish continues through to August 1st in the Little Theatre in Upper Arlington High School at 1650 Ridgeview Road in Upper Arlington (20 minutes or less from most anywhere in Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.shotsinthedarkitc.org/#!bigfish/cekv