BWW Reviews: Circle Players' 13 at The Keeton Theatre

Nashville's Circle Players, now in its 61st season and the oldest community theatre in Middle Tennessee, has scored one of its biggest hits ever with the current production of Jason Robert Brown's 13. Who'd have ever thought that the musical tale of a 13-year-old Jewish boy from NYC who is transplanted to Indiana could be so enormously entertaining or - perhaps more importantly and more significantly - acted and sung so amazingly well? Seriously, who knew?

Director Jamie London and music director Eddie Charlton have assembled a cast of energetic, focused and remarkable young people (I almost referred to them as "youngsters," which would make me an "oldster," wouldn't it? Yikes!) who are so totally committed to the task before them and who are so talented that I am still shaking my head in utter disbelief some 18 hours after the curtain fell on the show's sold-out opening night performance at Donelson's Keeton Theatre. Certainly, 13 is one of the most satisfying nights of theater you could ever hope to have and this production firmly establishes Circle Players as a tremendous training ground and launching pad for new and notable talent. That ringing in your ears, while it might be because of the thunderous ovations the cast received on opening night, is more likely the ringtones of the phones of every theater in town, literally ringing off the wall, as it were (or out of the pocket), alerting them to this wealth of young talent on display in 13.

Brown's score for 13 is vibrant and upbeat, again proving him one of the most prolific young composers in musical theater today, and while the songs are definitely contemporary in tone, they are quintessential showtunes, each one progressing the story and allowing the characters to express their emotions and feelings musically. Paired with a smartly written book - Dan Elish and Robert Horn share the writing credits - 13 is an intelligent and sincere look at the issues facing the students at Appleton, Indiana's fictional Dan Quayle Junior High (Go Quayles!). Elish and Horn have crafted a script that is sophisticated enough for the so-called "oldsters" in the audience (I laughed out loud more times than I can remember), yet there's nothing offensive or too "grown-up" for younger audiences or the cast. The creative team walks a fine line in 13, appealing to audience members of all generations with a genuine respect for everyone and refusing to pander at all, while transporting them to a world that could only exist in musical theater - with the complete absence of sitcom-inspired, overly precocious characters. Obviously, Brown, Elish and Horn knew who and what they were writing about in 13.

With that foundation in place, director London (who choreographed with the assistance of Jocelyn Eckhout) and music director Charlton put together a production that is enormously appealing, its relatively simple design aesthetic augmented by the video work of Ed Amatrudo and Jim Manning (who is also responsible for the deceptively simple set design that provides the ideal backdrop for the onstage action), the costume design of Jennifer Kleine and the lighting design of Paul Cook and Phillip Froeter.

With a cast that includes younger actors from throughout Middle Tennessee, London has found some of the most expressive and believable thespians we've seen onstage all season. As corny and as trite as it may sound, it really is like seeing the birth of a whole new galaxy of stars. Frankly, I'm awestruck, and so heartened by the love of musical theater on display on the Keeton stage - there are many reasons Nashville is called Music City, you know.

Leading the cast as Evan, the New York boy worried about having the best bar mitzvah Appleton has ever seen (which would probably be its first, anyway) is Christian Redden, a high school junior, who is appealing, thoroughly capable and the very definition of a triple threat. He puts his impressive acting/singing/dancing chops on display throughout 13, making the role his very own. Charming and sensitive, his performance of "Evan's Haftorah," performed at the bar mitzvah, is movingly sentimental yet leavened with humor and Redden's knowing way with a lyric.

Redden is matched note-for-note, scene-by-scene, by Delaney Amatrudo as Patrice, his new next-door neighbor, who is as misunderstood and viewed with as much derision as the newly arrived Jewish kid. Amatrudo, no stranger to Nashville stages, has always been known for having talent - but who knew she had so freaking much? She nails every one of her songs with the confidence of actresses much older than she and then knocks every one of them out of the ballpark with her sweetly nuanced performance, which is nothing short of stunning.

Completing the leading trio is Noah Rice, a senior at University School of Nashville, who proves to be an actor of remarkable range and poise in his spot-on performance as Archie, Evan's best friend. Archie is on crutches, living with a spinal cord injury - not exactly the source of a whole lot of belly laughs, usually - yet, with the clever script at his disposal and Rice's unerring sense of timing, he provides the night's biggest laughs with his delivery. Rice's performance is startlingly vivid and memorable. As Archie, Rice refers to the gang of three with an irreverent comment about "the crip, the geek, the Jew and his mother," which only he could deliver with such immense charm.

Suffice it to say, had the lead roles been filled by those three actors, the average theater-goer would have expected the supporting ensemble to be filled with young actors of a lesser caliber - let's face it, in community theater, the talent can vary a lot. Yet that doesn't happen with this cast...in fact, it's hard to find a weak link in this extraordinary ensemble of players.

Maya Riley, cast as the mean girl Lucy, embraces her role with a zealous glee that makes you love her despite the character's rather shady actions. Ryan Garrett as Brett, the school's quarterback who longs for "the tongue" and whatever comes after it (although he's unclear about what they entails), brings a certain macho likability to his role, and Holland Lane Curtis plays the vapid and vacuous object of his schoolboy desire (cheerleader captain Kendra) with a spirited and confident grace.

Brett's quartet of wingmen - perfectly portrayed by the fearlessDouglas Corzine, Spencer Dean, Jackson Grabois and Wes Richardson - provide strong support musically and comically, while the junior high girls - Audrey Belle, Zuri Lyles and Meredith Randall are the most noteworthy (and the ones most likely to knock your socks off in the show's finale) - show themselves to be their equals in all of the scene-stealing antics onstage.

The remainder of the ensemble includes Elizabeth Cameron, Isaiah Frank, Zoe Garner, Jasmine Jackson, Delaney Jacoway, Stella London, Olivia Mell, McKensie Miller, Cara Pugh, Ashley Robinson, Marc Sloan, Khandi Taylor, Eric Williams and Jack Williams.

Musically, there are some wonderful moments to be found in 13, starting off with the show-opening "Thirteen/Becoming A Man" that sets the stage for the entire tale and introduces us to Redden's Evan, establishing him as the show's leading man; Amatrudo and Redden's duet on "The Lamest Place in the World;" and Rice and Amatrudo's "What It Means to Be A Friend." The ensemble shines its brightest in Act One's finale "Getting Ready" and the show-closing "A Little More Homework" and "Brand New You" (which gives Audrey Belle, Zuri Lyles and Meredith Randall some much-deserved time in the spotlight). But the production's true show-stopping number is "Bad, Bad News," featuring Brett's wingmen and the boys' ensemble (with a nod to Jack Williams for a great solo turn) midway through the second act.

- 13. Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn. Directed and choreographed by Jamie London. Music direction by Eddie Charlton. Produced by LaTonya Turner. Presented by Circle Players at The Keeton Theatre, Donelson. For details, visit the company website at www.circleplayers.net; for reservations, call (615) 332-7529.

Pictured: The Cast of Circle Players' 13, photographed by Hatcher & Fell Photography/Nashville




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