Wednesday, August 11, 2010

High School Hell

It was the kind of comment that could come from any parent. But when the President of the United States -- while appearing on The View -- says "The girls are getting old enough now where they’re not quite teenagers yet, so they still like you," his words became eminently quotable.

There's a curious turning point (that usually occurs sometime during high school) where teenagers stop looking up to their parents and start concentrating on what they see in the mirror. Parental approval gives way to peer pressure as hours are spent combing one's hair, comparing the changes in one's body to what's happening to one's friends, or surreptitiously jerking off at every opportunity. The ultimate goal -- as explained by Glinda (Kristen Chenowith) in this clip from the hit musical Wicked -- is to be popular.

Some people "do" popular better than others. Fans of the popular television series, Glee, have seen how easy it is for pettiness, acne, shyness, jealousy, bullying, ostracism, and other afflictions of the teen years to inflict new angst on tortured egos. Just consider this scene from 1989's Heathers:

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While Hairspray and the High School Musical franchise continue to dominate the list of shows that are not only popular with teenagers, but are getting performed by teenagers in high schools around the country, a lesser known but equally appealing musical just finished a brief run of performances at the Bayside Performing Arts Center in San Mateo. Using local talent, Broadway By The Bay's Youth Theatre Conservatory offered a fully-staged production of 13, an immensely appealing musical (with book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, music and  lyrics by Jason Robert Brown).

Poster art for 13
In her director's note, Erica Wyman writes:
"If you were to ask me if I would ever want to be 13 again, my answer would be a solid, big, fat, NEVER! Because 13 is so new and cool to the musical theatre scene isn't the reason I was so gung ho on presenting this show. The real reason has everything to do with an actual song from the show called 'Homework.'
I remember purchasing the CD when it became available and hoping I would really like it. I breezed through it as I drove to work one morning and found I liked it a lot.  I was almost at the end of the CD when I pulled into the parking lot at my office and sat for a few extra minutes. The rest is a bit blurry. I just remember crying (sobbing, actually) through that song, specifically the lyric 'I'm trying to follow, I am trying to lead, I'm trying to find what is true.'  I then sat in the car for an additional 15 minutes reflecting on stuff I haven't thought about since I was a teenager."
I love his production. It's smart, charming, witty, and the characters are so beautifully constructed that I think anyone in the audience who has survived years 13-21 will empathize, sympathize, and laugh out loud at what we are all so familiar with: adolescence."
Jonny Stein and the cast of 13

Jason Robert Brown's musical was written to be performed by teenagers (preferably 13 year olds) onstage as well as in the pit. A perfect vehicle for summer theatre camps, its ability to add any number of performers to the chorus of cheerleaders, pom-pom girls, and male students allows directors the chance to give almost anyone in the cast a chance to shine. Among the key roles are:
  • Evan Goldman (Jonny Stein), a 12-year-old Jewish boy living in Manhattan who is eagerly looking forward to a big bar mitzvah. When his parents decide to get divorced, his mother moves to Appleton, Indiana. Entering a new school where he has no friends -- and desperately needs to become popular if he is going to have a big crowd come to his bar mitzvah -- even sets out to befriend the cool kids, who refer to him as "The Brain."
  • Patrice (Christina Oeschger), one of the first people to befriend Evan, is considered a loser and a freak by most of the kids at school. She is also one of the few students who understands what it really means to be a friend. When she first meets Evan, she congratulates him on having landed in "The Lamest Place In The World."
  • Kendra (Cierra Reimche), the lead cheerleader. Pretty, eager to please, and not especially bright, she is wanted by all and respected by few.
  • Archie (Patrick Castle), Patrice's best friend. Archie is also the class cripple who hobbles around on crutches while pining for a date with Kendra. Having learned how to use his disability to manipulate people's guilt, he  readily confesses that, once he gets a Ritalin and some Red Bull inside him, he's brave enough to try anything. Archie challenges Evan to "Get Me What I Need."
  • Brett Sampson (John Merritt), the school's football hero. Handsome, athletic, extremely popular, and a bit of a bully, Brett knows he should be trying to "do the tongue" with a girl but hasn't the slightest idea what comes next. Brett tells Evan that he only way he and his friends will attend Evan's bar mitzvah is if Evan manges to get them all tickets to see the latest R-rated horror flick: Blood Master.
  • Lucy (Jessica Gotelli), supposedly Kendra's best friend. Lucy is also, unfortunately, the kind of back-biting, double-dealing aggressive young bitch who will enjoy a great future on a real housewives reality show. In a brilliant production number, she demonstrates how to make the most out of an "Opportunity."
Joe Duffy's choreography helped the large ensemble of students move through the show's musical numbers, with some succeeding more than others. I found to take my eyes off one scrawny boy with blond hair who was trying so hard to do the choreography (you could almost hear him counting inside his head) while remaining just spastic enough to make his performance as an awkward teen totally believable.

I was especially impressed with Jason Robert Brown's score, which is quite fascinating musically. Brown's song lyrics are intelligent and challenging. Four songs stand out as clear winners:
  • "Terminal Illness" (in which Evan and Archie explain how no one wants to say no to someone destined to die soon).
  • "Being A Geek" (in which Evan tries to explain to his rabbi how awful his new life is, only to be reminded of what it's like to be a rabbi in a town like Appleton, Indiana).
  • "What It Means To Be A Friend," in which Patrice mourns the superficiality of her classmates.
  • "A Little More Homework" (in which Evan and his friends all realize that they still have a lot of growing up to do).
Evan Goldman (Jonny Stein) and his classmates in 13
The production of 13 that I attended was solidly performed and delivered far more joy to its audience than one might have expected. If a local school is ever staging Jason Robert Brown's musical, don't miss it!

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Alas, not every story about teenagers attending middle school and high school is a laugh riot. Nobody thought the killings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 were a lot of fun. The same can be said for the shootings that took place on the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. Can anyone forget the grisly final scene from Brian de Palma's 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King's novel, Carrie?

While it's easy to concentrate on the blood and gore aspect of school shootings, it's harder to create a dramedy that combines terrorism and farce. One of the most interesting plays to get a reading at the recent 2010 Bay Area Playwrights Festival was J.C. Lee's comedy, Pookie Goes Grenading. Directed by Nicholas C. Avila, it includes the following cast of characters:
  • Pookie, an overly dramatic high school student in suburban New Jersey who wants to become a star. Pookie also wants to exact revenge on the manager of a local Krispy Kreme (whom she suspects has boiled down some illegal immigrants so he can use their skin in his donut glaze).
  • Benny, the school's most popular athlete. He is also moody and gay. Despite his limited intellect, Benny dreams of being a contender in, like, maybe a reality show or something cool.
  • Dynamo, Pookie's best friend. Loyal to the core, Dynamo has trouble thinking things through and is quick to dismiss some of Pookie's brainstorms with the words "Dat's just stoopid!". When discussing drama, he keeps referring to the "douche machines" (deus ex machinas) from Greek tragedy. Without Pookie, he has no friends. Although Dynamo is not gay, he's decided it would be cool to be perceived as Benny's boyfriend.
  • Larry, the unfortunate guidance counselor who has been kidnapped by Pookie and her accomplices.
  • Greta, is a local radio personality who hates Pookie's guts with good reason. Once, on a dare, Pookie took a dump in Greta's oatmeal at school. Now Pookie needs Greta's help.
One of the joys of attending a staged reading is seeing what actors can bring to their roles. The silent, coy interplay between the shuffling body language of Craig Piaget's Dynamo and the muscle flexing, eye rolling performance of Adrian Anchondo as Benny as the two young men decide to break up had the audience roaring with laughter. I can't wait to see a full staged production!

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