There is no better prescription for pandemic fatigue than experiencing live performance and the human connection we’ve all desperately missed. Such was the case Saturday, June 31 at The Park, a new outdoor venue at Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre, where I saw the musical “13” featuring an all-teen cast. It was presented by Summer Stock Stage, a dynamic seasonal theatre program for high school students from throughout Central Indiana.
Before I comment on “13,” I would first like to offer congratulations to Phoenix Theatre and, in particular, Bob Lehman, its former director of sales and communications (who has since returned to San Diego, his former residence for another opportunity), who conceived and spearhead the effort to create the venue in the parking lot, just west of the theatre. The setup consists of metal shipping containers, one used as a stage and the other as a bar. The stage is small, but SSS has added an apron with enough room for the performers to execute production numbers. Making the entire space very unique to Indianapolis is the dramatic view of the city’s skyline, especially as dusk turns to night.
Finally, there is more than enough room at The Park to accommodate the 250 people who were in the audience of the nearly sold-out show. Considering the cast was all high-school age, it is safe to assume the crowd was made up mostly of their families and friends, thus accounting for the wild enthusiasm exhibited by cheers, whistles and screams.
And there was plenty to respond to positively, including the musical itself. With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, popular with young audiences, and book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, the original production opened in 2008 on Broadway and closed after a total of 105 performances. The coming-of-age story, one of Brown’s early works, is full of teenage romance, discovery, crisis, and angst. It centers on twelve-year old Evan Goldman following a move from New York City to fictional Appleton, Indiana. Struggling with his parents’ divorce, he prepares for his upcoming bar mitzvah, all while dealing with the intricate social dynamics of his new school.
Expertly directed by Devan Mathias, a gifted performer herself, the leads included Alec Evard as Evan, Piper Murphy as Patrice, Christian Barda as Archie, Sophia Clark as Lucy, and Abigail Judy as Kendra. All exhibited believability, professionalism and polish. Their performances were typical of SSS participants, many of whom go on to study musical theatre, with some even performing on Broadway. Also deserving of praise were those in supporting roles and the ensemble of the 19-member cast.
Turning in electrifying performances were Alec Evard as Evan who grapples with adapting to all the changes in his life and Christian Barda. Disabled like his character Archie, Barda who exhibited a strong stage presence shined in his vocal performance.
Standing out as well for her performance as Patrice was Murphy, who showed star quality in her solos of “The Lamest Place in the World,” “What It Means to be a Friend,” and “Good Enough.” Since she has that “it” factor, I predict she will go far.
The entire cast also demonstrated extraordinary dance skills in exuberant production numbers, choreographed by Darian Wilson, and vocal dexterity singing Brown’s dazzling scores, backed by a fine six piece rock band, under the tutelage of Michael Raunick, the celebrated choral director of North Central High School.
Produced by SSS co-founder Emily Ristine Holloway, yet another superb performer and director, the technical team consists of some of Indy’s most accomplished artists, including costume designer Jeanne Bowling, sound designer Zach Rosing, lighting designer Quinten James, scenic artist Kyle Ragsdale, and prop master Rachelle Martin. Overseeing it all was SSS Managing Director Rachel Riegel. Their combined efforts resulted in a mélange of color and sounds, delighting my senses, that depicted Appleton, Indiana and Evan’s precarious teen world.
At the risk of repeating myself, one of the reasons I enjoy SSS shows so much is seeing these neophyte artists perform with such passion, commitment and vitality. It gives me great hope for the future of musical theatre and for society, in general. Given that “13” only blessed us with a two-day run, I highly recommend for a jolt of electric joy, seeing SSS’s next production “Once on this Island” July 8-10. For tickets and information, visit summerstockstage.com.