13, the Musical: kids way better'n alright

Snits, fits, zits (and other "It" rhymes) on Waterfront stage

Ever feel like all eyes are upon you? Photo: Anita Alberto

A score of yeasty teenagers jiggling through a disco-beat psychodrama about middle school angst; what could go wrong?

Plenty, as anyone can attest who’s ever been dragooned into applauding some distant relative’s over-ambitious school musical.

So it was with some trepidation that we joined the full-house Waterfront Theatre audience for 13. Half the people around us seemed to clap with special fervour for one or another of the 19 performers onstage.

But our qualms were misplaced. These are no amateurs, but budding pro’s, already veterans of stage, TV and movie roles, as detailed in their playbill blurbs. It shows in their tight coordination, precision timing, unflappable confidence and controlled verve.

Several are advanced students at the Lindbjerg Academy, where the show’s director, Chris Adams, is on the faculty. Others are recently embarked on theatre majors at Studio 58, Langara or UBC.

Jason Robert Brown’s Broadway blockbuster 13: The Musical provides an ideal vehicle for such a bevy of talent. It details the plight of a pubescent kid propelled by parental divorce from New York’s Upper West Side to darkest Indiana. This disaster strikes right on the hyper-charged verge of his middle school debut and his long-anticipated Bar Mitzvah.

His new backyard neighbour and soon-to-be-classmate acquaints him with the strip-mall blandness of the Midwest milieu and the social anatomy of Dan Quayle Junior High – jocks, cheerleaders, sluts, studs and nerds inter alia.

She herself, alas, pertains to the despised pariah caste of “geeks,” where her only ally is a whiney – but cannily astute – “special needs” kid on crutches. But, in the New York transplant, she sees hope of recruiting another friend.

He, though, has other ideas. He wants in with the in-crowd. To that end, he machinates hilariously, right up to (and including) a shameful betrayal of the girl next door. Until the perfidy gets to be too much for him and he tosses his popularity campaign, settling instead for a small-bore Indiana Bar Mitzvah with his geeky soul mates and his fleetingly reunited parents.

It takes a dyed-in-the-wool Young Adult author to so soothingly sugar-coat the acerbity of adolescence, but veteran KidLit novelist Dan Elish rises to the occasion. His script, along with Brown’s music and lyrics, offset the sentimentality of the story line against the piquancy of deliciously incorrect juxtapositions: a capering can-can of talith-bedecked Rabbi’s, a “soft-shoe” on crutches, the sweaty frisson of a first French kiss & cie & cie.

Set designer Christopher Gauthier keeps the whole show spinning – literally – on rolling casters that undergird three flexible panels, which serve, by turns, as stadium bleachers, hall lockers, a backyard fence or the Ark of the Covenant. Choreographer Nicol Spinola puts the cast through its paces, to the disco throb of husband-and-wife duo Monique Creber, music director, and Michael Creber, band leader.  

But it takes more than back-beat, blocking and clever staging to sustain a Two Act, 120-minute, multi-starred extravaganza like this. In the end it all comes down to the performers, themselves.

Graham Verchere plays the burdened Bar Mitzvah boy with all the guileless charm of Saint Exupéry’s Little Prince (if that space cat could ever stay earthbound long enough to survive a voice change).

As his backyard inamorata, Julia MacLean can belt out a torch song with the best of them – no wonder she makes a sideline of crooning the meet-opening anthems at sports stadia, according to the program notes.

Rounding out the geeky threesome, crutch-dancer Julian Lokash sings – and stings – in the nasal countertenor of a winsome, witty mosquito. On the “cool” side of the Dan Quayle JHS ledger, darkly handsome sports star Jason Sakaki moons after bimbonic ingénue Kyra Leroux until his gaze is diverted by sultry temptress Michelle Creber.

Marvelling at the frothy onstage energy, the wife and I were a bit daunted to realize that the ages of all six co-stars, taken together, still added up to a lot less than cumulative ages of the two of us sedately taking it all in from our cushy Waterfront armchairs.

Ah, well. We look forward to seeing and hearing a lot more from them in years to come. If we live that long.       

   

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