Los Angeles Theater Review: 40 IS THE NEW 15 (Academy for New Musical Theatre at NoHo Arts Center)

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by Tony Frankel on August 1, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles


This is a difficult review to write: On one hand, 40 is the New 15 is a pleasant musical about forty year-olds who take a look at the choices they made in high school, going back and forth in time from 1983 to 2008. The characters are likeable, the acting is fine and some of the singing is fantastic. Those without a discriminating eye may find this a warm, silly, and engaging experience. Nothing wrong with that. My theatergoing companion enjoyed himself, largely because he could relate to the time period in which the show takes place.

On the other hand, the music is wholly forgettable, there is no clear style to the direction, and its theme of regrets, choices, and mistakes misses the chance for emotional resonance and timelessness. It’s a Teflon musical: nothing sticks. When I invited the same companion to revisit the show with me with the alternate cast, he said, “Take somebody else.”

The well-established Academy for New Musical Theatre has developed over fifty musicals in the last four years, offering producers a complete process for developing a musical; they also create opportunities for writers to partner with producers and hone skills in the Writers’ Workshop. They offer readings, salons, and concerts, and (with 40 is the New 15 at The NoHo Arts Center) are venturing into producing. They deserve to have this show examined (although it was not revisited in person).

So, what is the reviewer’s role here? “Show Doctor” or Executioner? 40 is the New 15 is not shticky enough for the Blue Hairs (the type of audience usually found at a matinee) and too shticky for musical aficionados. To succeed in the future, the writers Larry Todd Johnson (book and lyrics) and Cindy O’Connor (music) would do well to take their project out of the netherworld it currently resides in.

Curtain up. Five people step forward in a chorus line and address their respective therapists’ query as to what they’re feeling — they’re having doubts about who (or what) they’ve become. After the opening number, all five transport back to 1983, when they were together in a Gifted Kids program at school; each responds with a song to the unseen teacher when asked about their summer vacation: Oren (John Allsopp) is the computer nerd; Winter (Karole Foreman) is the fish-out-of-water, brainy, black girl who beat Oren in a science fair; Sarah (Dana Meller) is the perky, off-kilter world champion gymnast; Kevin (Tod Macofsky) dreams of Broadway stardom (we know where this one’s going); and his best friend Robby is the athlete who shuns emotion. Robby and Kevin are no longer best friends, however; in a flashback, we see Kevin look longingly at Robby while they watch an episode of Dynasty one night and … fade out (you can guess they didn’t have a falling out over Marshmallow Treats). Once the mystery of what happened on that fateful night is predictably solved at show’s end, the resolution feels dissatisfying.

The first thing that struck me as odd in this entertaining but dubious outing is how self-aware these 15 year-olds are — as if they were seeing themselves through 40 year-old eyes. The self-examinating style is reminiscent of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; psychological assessment is charming from 6 year olds, but it comes off as a cabaret act from these teenagers. Since there is very little subtext (these people tend to wear their heart on their sleeve), there is little room for self-discovery. Although the characters are well-drawn and appealing, they are one-dimensional — except for Robby, who is the most compelling character at the start because he attempts to do what most teenagers do: cover up his true feelings.

Winter Graham (“like the cracker, not the unit of measurement”) is the misfit many can relate to — her mom just wants her to belong, while Sarah the gymnast has a mom that wants her to pull back. This paradigm creates an unlikely but believable relationship for the two. But somewhere after high school, Winter inexplicably goes from brainy scientist outcast to fashion Diva. What a great number that would make if we could watch her morph from one Winter into another. Miss Foreman is a terrific singer and could easily handle such a soliloquy.

It’s a stretch to sympathize with these characters’ mid-life self-examination: in Act II we discover that one is a doctor, another is a successful writer, two have become millionaires (fashion and technology) and the gold medalist is, well, still a gold medalist. Sarah starts out as goofy gymnast and ends up a goofy mother of a gymnast; still, her plight as the divorcee who is discovering that her daughter does not have what it takes to be a gymnast is the most convincing dramatic situation. The biggest problem for Bill Gates prototype Oren (a credible Mr. Zimmerman), is that he’s too busy to even know what is missing from his life. It’s not a conflict that creates urgency.

The conceit of present day to flashback works well enough, but author Mr. Johnson has painted himself into a corner by setting the play squarely in 1983: there are plenty of compulsory references (Total Eclipse of the HeartYentl, Stridex medicated pads) but that makes the viewing more powerful only to those audience members who actually grew up in that time; to be emotionally resonant, we need the timeless theme (examination of losing one’s way in life) to transcend the material, which it does not in 40 is the New 15. The lyrics are funny but inconsequential, and I could occasionally guess the rhyme before it happened. Mr. Johnson is assuredly on the right track, but the issue is content over form.

Miss O’Connor’s music is difficult to connect with: just as she creates a lovely melody or patter, she switches to a recitative or modification and her structure wafts over us and disappears through the back of the house, never to be thought of again. There are sections of the score that sound positively derivative of Finn, Schwartz, and Hamlisch — musicians who were reinventing the Broadway sound prior to 1983, before pop music slammed onto Broadway from the other side of the Atlantic. (Also disconcerting is that Miss O’Connor’s music sounds no different in scenes taking place in 1983 than it does in the 2008 scenes.) It’s a shame that the program does not list musical numbers; that may have helped me to cite examples.

Director Michele Spears allows her actors to be presentational, when they should be internalizing more, and the movement on the cubic set is often clunky or blocked in chorus line (at the top there is an awkward do-si-do and we sit in silence as the actors change into their youth clothes.) And just so we know the mid-lifers are in therapy, a huge, ugly inkblot is projected on the rear of the stage. Is this due to budget constraints, or are the moods and placement of the thespians not focused enough to convey the presence of a therapist without the visual aid?

40 is the New 15 is entertaining enough, but it will take a lot of work for this musical to live after this run.

photos courtesy of ANMT

40 is the New 15
Academy for New Musical Theatre
NoHo Arts Center, 5628 Vineland Ave. in North Hollywood
ends on August 22, 2010
for tickets, call 818.506.8500 or visit ANMT

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