40 IS THE NEW 15

Five former high school classmates turning 40 reflect on the ways their lives have changed over the past quarter century in 40 Is The New 15, a new musical by Larry Todd Johnson and Cindy O’Connor. Though “workshop” would be a more appropriate description of this not quite fully-staged production, tuneful, clever songs, an engrossing storyline, and a quintet of fine performances make this an entertaining, moving, and very promising evening of musical theater.

An offstage voice welcomes Kevin, Oren, Robby, Sarah, and Winter to their “session” with a suggestion that they talk about how it feels to be turning 40.  40?  Did he say 40?  How can it be that they’ve gotten that old when deep inside, they each still feel 15 to this day?

In “If I Could Go Back,” it’s back in time they go, Robby donning a baseball cap, Sarah a gymnastics medal, Oren a Star Trek t-shirt, Winter a Flashdance sweatshirt, and Kevin an argyle sweater vest.  It’s the first day of their Freshman year of High School and the question their teacher has asked them is the same one kids all over the country are being forced to answer.  “What happened to you during the summer of 1983?”

“My Summer Vacation” situates our cast of characters smack-dab in the 80s, with mentions of Swatches, Walkmen, Atari video games, Cyndi Lauper, “Oh What A Feeling,” Superman 3, and Kevin’s proclamation that “This coming November, it’s Streisand in Yentl!”  (If you’ve guessed that Kevin is gay, no need to guess again.)

We then get to know each of the five a little better.  

•In “The Nerds Shall Inherit The Earth, computer geek Oren (Kevin Noonchester) opines optimistically that “I’ve seen the future and the nerds will be preferred!” 

•New-girl-in-town Winter (Taji Coleman) sings “Stand Out/Blend In,” bemoaning the fact that over the summer, she shot up to 5’11”, got the nickname “Stick,” is wearing new glasses, and is not at all happy about any of this.  “When one is truly off,” she laments, “one can never blend in.”

•“Better Than This” is perky over-achiever Sarah’s own personal anthem. “I won the gymnastics all-around Gold!” she proclaims.  “I’ve never dreamed better than this. I’ve never done anything better than this.”  What can possibly come next after the “sweetest victory ever?”  

•Kevin (Tod Macofsky) knows that “Something Is About To Change.” Over the summer, he redecorated his bedroom in teal and peach and sewed his own shirt, though sadly not out of red silk. (His mom told him red silk was “too flamboyant” so “She got me acetate!”)  He also spent perfect hours watching Dynasty with his best friend Robby (and shooting longing looks at him.)  Though this is what actually happened this past summer, what Kevin tells his teacher is, “I broke up with my girlfriend.” Oh, and that Robby and he are no longer speaking.  

•Last up is Robby (Ed F. Martin), who announces that he went camping.  “He’s lying,” interrupts Kevin.  “The trip was canceled.”  In “What I Didn’t Do,” Robby admits the truth.  He spent most of the summer in his room.  “My summer was defined by what I didn’t do. When your dad’s Major Newton, you don’t have a choice.  I didn’t do anything I dreamed I might. I didn’t stand up for a friend.” For Robby, it was a summer of regrets.

As this first day of high school continues, perky Sarah meets sarcastic new girl Winter, and the two discover they have something in common.  They’re both blue and nothing feels normal. Meanwhile, an unhappy Oren complains that Winter has taken over his “little niche” at the top, and that what really sucks is that she’s a girl. Best friends since the age of 6, Robby-&-Kevin are no more.  For the past four weeks, they’ve had no contact, not since Robby’s dad screamed and Robby panicked.  “It all ended on August 14th, 1983.”  

Flash forward in time 25 years, and the fivesome’s astonishing realization that “I Turned Forty This Summer.  Robby: “The hair that I lost from my head all grew in on my back.  What the fuck!” Kevin: “Thank the Lord, and thank Botox. I appear to be aging well.”  Sarah: “A woman of 40 has much better chances of winning the Lotto than getting remarried.” Oren: “There I sat on my 40th birthday … with my cat.” Winter: “I will never turn 40. 29 is where my timeline froze.”

Robby is a successful doctor and divorced father.  Kevin is a fabulous gay man with a string of bad relationships.  Sarah is living her life through that of her teen gymnastics champion daughter.  Oren is a rich but lonely computer mogul. Winter is a glamorous supermodel.  Inside though, they’re all still 15, and some changes need to be made in their lives (in Act Two) in order for their mental and emotional maturity to match their chronological age.

O’Connor’s tunes are catchy, each and every one, the kind you start singing along with in your head halfway through, and Johnson’s lyrics are clever and perceptive.  Kevin’s story particularly seems to be a deeply personal one to book writer Johnson.  It’s also the one in which I became the most deeply invested, though audience members of any age will probably identify with at least one of the musical’s diverse cast of characters.

Director Michele Spears keeps the performances from ever becoming cliché, and she is fortunate indeed in the perfectly-cast ensemble assembled here. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone more right for each of the roles than Coleman, Macofsky, Martin, Noonchester, and Wolcott, five extremely talented performers who sing and act with equal flair. O’Connor’s musical direction is topnotch, the composer accompanying the performers on keyboard with pre-programmed rhythm tracks.

Though the Academy For New Musical Theater’s website describes 40 Is The New 15 as ANMT’s “very first production workshopped for the Academy,” the production now playing at the Secret Rose still appears to be in workshop form.  The show’s minimal set consists of five desk chairs and moveable panels from the concurrently running Dog Sees God, adapted to suggest the show’s various locales. All design elements are uncredited.

That being said, 40 Is The New 15 is a highly promising, highly entertaining new musical. Some of the dialog could be worked on to deepen the characters and their relationships (think “straight play” rather than “musical” when tweaking), and a more emotionally satisfying resolution to the Kevin-Robby story is needed, at least in this somewhat let-down reviewer’s humble opinion.  Still, I left the Secret Rose Theatre feeling that I’d gotten to know and care about five diverse characters, and wishing there were at least a demo CD so that I could hear Johnson and O’Connor’s wonderful songs again, and that is something to sing about!  

The Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia, North Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
August 5, 2009

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