Wednesday, April 8, 2020
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Because of casting, “13” at Atholton is “lit”

COLUMBIA, Md. (March 4) — The musical 13, which closed Saturday at Atholton High School here, has the distinction of hitting Broadway with a cast made up entirely of teenagers. So when the musical comes to the high school stage, the story about a middle school boy from New York City who moves to Indiana just before his bar mitzvah feels quite natural, like kids talking amongst themselves. There are no teachers here, no parents, no adults to judge them and correct every word.

That’s just as well, too, since teachers often don’t have the first idea what kids are talking about. Just before the winter break, The Raider Review, the student media site at the school, recorded teachers’ humorous attempts to guess what various teen slang words meant:

In the musical, Evan (an energized Jace Franco) grows up in New York and is getting ready for his 13th birthday and his bar mitzvah, which is the Jewish rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. But from a kid’s perspective—and this musical is told only from that viewpoint—it’s all about the party. Kids who have a good bar mitzvah party are set, and those who don’t are cast out for the rest of their school lives.

But since Evan’s mom, who never appears on stage, has a cousin in Appleton, Indiana, a town that doesn’t actually exist but is meant to represent the most rural of Indiana towns, she decides to move there with Evan after a divorce that seems to have been problematic.

In Indiana, Evan meets a down-to-earth Patrice (Grace Tyson). Ms Tyson, a junior who sings with the Peabody Children’s Chorus, may not have revealed the biggest blockbuster voice here, but her sweetness and very tuneful, lyrical singing highlighted the real goodness in Patrice. Her friend Archie (senior Abrien Nelson), who is physically disabled from some degenerative, terminal condition, is also a fish out of water among middle schoolers at Dan Quayle Middle School, which, oddly, has a football team.

So in order to get the star of the football team and all the cool kids to come to his bar mitzvah party, Evan disses Patrice and sets out to bring the cheerleading captain and quarterback together in a date at an R-rated movie, at which he’s sure he’ll get some tongue action.

Things kind of fall apart, as far as the tongue stuff goes. But musicals aren’t known for unhappy endings, and this one is no exception. Along the way, though, we get a glimpse of what happens when adults aren’t watching and considerable insight into tweens at their growing, maturing, raw selves.

The staff at Atholton certainly could have made different choices in casting the roles. For example, while Evan is really the lead character, he doesn’t have the most demanding vocals, the way Archie does. So Mr Nelson was cast as Archie. Evan’s a fairly typical middle school kid, while Archie is extraordinary, not just because of his disability but because of the kindness in his heart. That doesn’t mean he’s immune from the same desires for sexual fulfillment that govern middle school boys’ thoughts, but it means his character has depth that is perfectly suited to the maturity in Mr Nelson’s voice.

But even as this musical was about middle school immaturity, some of the behind-the-scenes work at Atholton gave the production run a distinct maturity.

Dr Roberta Babbitt, the wife of Nathan Rosen, who teaches English and drama at Atholton, died in August. She was trained at the Eastman School of Music and served as the director of program and research development for behavioral psychology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Before she died, though, she spent many days at Atholton, imparting her drive for excellence on the musical casts, according to the show’s choreographer, Stephanie Gurwitz Zurier. “She encouraged every student to try new things,” Ms Gurwitz Zurier said. “Our ideas bounced off of each other, one of us coming up with a crazy idea and the other making it work, developing our own language throughout the way, such as monkey arms, krishna pose, and chicken wings.”

As for the maturity of some of the Jewish and Indiana humor in this musical, it was evident in the audience as well as the characters. I get to shows early, and the theater is usually pretty empty when I choose my seat. That means the people around me in the audience are left up to chance. This time, a group of about 12 friends sat down right in front of me, and I could see their reactions to what was happening on the stage in my peripheral vision.

When a perfectly innocent comment was made about how Jews tend to “complain about everything” or about Indiana’s non-cosmopolitan or isolationist settings, the characters may not have been aware of the bigotry in their words, but high school audience members sure recognized it for what it was, given their quick reactions, much as they got every reference to “second base” or “the tongue” when characters talked about sex. This served the purpose of bringing the theater into the lives of middle school kids just as the song and dance in this show brought middle school kids’ lives into the theater.

“Robbie had a love for theater and dance that infused all that we did,” Ms Gurwitz Zurier added. “This year was very difficult for all of us. While Robbie was with me in spirit, in my head while choreographing … her physical presence, her gorgeous voice, her laughter and hugs were missed greatly by all.”

And whatever language is used, the show was a huge success, which is what the slang term “lit” means to many of today’s teenagers. A few sport-related successes have come to Atholton this school year as well: The girls’ volleyball team, with coach Rob Moy, won the state’s public school Class 3A title in November by defeating Damascus, 17-25, 25-21, 25-18, 25-22. It was the first girls’ volleyball state championship at the school in 27 years.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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