Lachlan Topshee & the cast of 13 photo by ingrid bulmer
Last evening at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre at Neptune Theatre I was reminded, once again, that the future of musical theatre in Halifax is in bright and capable hands. The Neptune Theatre School’s Youth Performance Company production of the Jason Robert Brown musical 13 (2008) is a contemporary, powerhouse ensemble piece that explores the perils of being the new kid in Junior High. 13 follows the story of a young Jewish boy named Evan Goldman who is in the midst of planning the most epic Bar Mitzvah ever when suddenly he and his mother move from New York, New York to Appleton, Indiana where everything every day for Evan becomes a gigantic disaster. It is a bit like Degrassi Jr. High: The Musical. The book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn is rooted in accurate scenarios from Junior High and teenspeak that doesn’t sound lame or contrived, but Elish and Horn don’t allow for the characters to grow much beyond their prototypes: Evan is the Jewish New Yorker version of Everyman, Brett is the classic Football star, Patrice is the bookish, mature girl with the heart of gold, Kendra’s the oblivious popular girl and Lucy is her “BFF” Popular Mean Girl. The book is minimal so it is in Brown’s melodic and soulful pop-rock score that the individuality of each character is able to shine through and where much of the show’s silliness and teenage exuberance is rooted as well.
There is so much in 13 that I love. Lachlan Topshee plays Evan with a stubborn, yet naive, determination to conquer the impossible: to appease both the popular kids at school and his outcast friends. Despite the disasters that follow him, Topshee makes it clear that at heart Evan is trying to make the right choices and his reactions to how cataclysmically he manages to mess up his life are hilarious and on point. Ben Stephenson is as suave as a 13 year old can be as Brett, who is in hot pursuit of “The Tongue” at almost any cost. Stephenson is channelling his inner John Hughes movie for this and has a great sense of balance between making Brett a threat to Evan, but also undercutting him with a healthy dose of humour. His pals Eddie and Malcolm, played by the hilarious Chad Hendrickson and Spencer Laing respectively, brought the house with the soulful honky-tonk number “Bad Bad News,” a song in similar style as Brown’s “Big News” from Parade. Hendrickson and Laing have beautiful stage presence, sharp comic timing and palpable chemistry together making for a really fun time for everyone. Evan Matthews is sly and manipulative as Archie, who uses his physical disability as means to attempt to get a date with Kendra. Matthews captures Archie’s wry and dark sense of humour in a way that makes you feel okay about laughing along with him and he also shows great compassion and loyalty to the much maligned Patrice. Olivia Kempster plays Lucy, a modern day Josie Pye (she even sings the contemporary urban equivalent of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical’s “Did You Hear”), who gets supreme pleasure from doing the vilest things to destroy the lives of those around her. Kempster has very strong stage presence and captures Lucy’s sassy attitude and jealous contempt for Kendra beautifully and her strength works well with her dynamic with Stephenson’s Brett, who she ends up dominating with threats and bribes. Julie d’Entremont gives a sweet performance as Kendra, a good hearted girl who is easily manipulated and deceived and follows the prescribed popular route regardless of its consequences. Nika Gantar gives a heartrending portrayal of Patrice, the one character filled with integrity and self-awareness and wisdom well beyond her years. Gantar has a beautiful sincerity in exploring the nuances of Patrice’s emotions and the way that she protects her inner self from the rest of the students in her school and she gives her song “What It Means To Be A Friend” passionate depth.
Vocally, this group of young performers is very strong, both individually and as an ensemble and director/choreographer Alexis Milligan uses this to her advantage in having all the company members in a variety of fun backup configurations. This ensures that all the company members are given maximum stage time, compliments Brown’s pop score nicely and adds to the Junior High School ambiance of how each character is swathed in the constant presence of the group. Milligan’s choreography is youthful, fun and silly in places, which is a welcome reminder how thirteen year olds are continually oscillating between behaving like teenagers and behaving like children. The students are backed by the amazing Holly Arsenault and her band, which gives the entire show a buoyed up and electric energy that is as infectious as Brown’s music can be. There are especially fun Milligan moments with an upright bed, dancing with crutches and glow stick cheerleading. The only things I would caution is to make sure there’s a loud noise to accompany stage slaps to keep the tension mounting through to the end of the stage fight, and also to make sure that if there is a solo singer backed by the ensemble and the band, to try and find ways to ensure that the audience can hear the lyrics of the solo track.
13 tells a very familiar story, one that most people who have spent any time in Junior High have confronted head on, the quest to contend with the desire for popularity and dispel loneliness while staying true to one’s own heart and true sense of self. There are triumphs for Evan and for Patrice but Kendra and Lucy are a sadder commentary on how girls are being encouraged (and encouraging each other) at younger and younger ages to define themselves entirely by their burgeoning sexuality and measuring their worth solely in reference to men. My heart went out to Kempster’s Lucy. I found myself wondering what was happening in her life that she had been led so far astray from her own unique potential as a person empowered and defined by her own accomplishments, talents and knowledge. Perhaps there is a musical in waiting in her story as well. I don’t want Lucy and Kendra’s stories to be accepted as the norm for thirteen year old girls without being challenged and questioned; we all deserve better than that.
One thing is clear, the future of Halifax’s musical theatre is on stage at the Neptune Studio Theatre and the most exciting thing is that they’re just getting started!
The Neptune Theatre’s Youth Performance Company’s 13 plays at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) until Sunday December 15, 2013. Shows are at 7:30pm Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday and 2:00pm on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $16.00 (12.00 for Students) and are available at the Box Office (1593 Argyle St.), by calling 902.429.7070 or visiting this website.