40 IS THE NEW 15

What a difference a few tweaks can make!

40 Is The New 15, Larry Todd Johnson and Cindy O’Connor’s musical about five former high school classmates turning 40 and reflecting on the ways their lives have changed over the past quarter century, has made a triumphant return to North Hollywood a year after its workshop run. What was already an entertaining, moving, and very promising evening of musical theater has come back the polished gem that only years of rewrites and workshops can achieve.

The five ex-classmates in question are Kevin, Oren, Robby, Sarah, and Winter, none of whom can quite believe that they’ve turned 40 this year, especially when deep down inside each one of them still feels 15 to this day. Unfolding in a series of songs and scenes both past and present, 40 Is The New 15 opens with “If I Could Go Back,” which sends the fivesome flashing back in time to 1983 and the first day of their Freshman year of High School.  Their teacher has just asked them a question kids all over the country are being forced to answer, and that question is:  “What happened to you during the summer of 1983?”

“My Summer Vacation” situates our cast of characters smack-dab in the 80s, with Winter getting her sister a Cabbage Patch doll, Sarah cutting up her sweaters Flashdance style, Robby and Oren staying home and playing Atari, and Kevin nearly going “mental” waiting for Barbra in Yentl (thereby giving us our first clue to his budding gay self).

Each of the five then gets his own A Chorus Line-style self-revelatory soliloquy in song.  Computer geek Oren (John Allsopp) informs us optimistically that he’ll “never be the stud to grace the front of GQ, but when you see my billfold, you’ll drool at its girth!” New-girl-in-town Winter (Karole Foreman) bemoans having grown several inches over the summer, thereby earning herself the nickname “Stick,” “When one is truly off,” Winter laments, “one can never blend in.” Gymnastics champ Sarah (Dana Meller) reflects on her World Championship Gold Medal by declaring that “while some girls are dreaming of Prince Charming’s kiss, I’ve never dreamed better than this! I’ve never done better than this.” Kevin (Tod Macofsky) sings about redecorating his bedroom in teal and peach and sewing his own shirt, though sadly not out of red silk. (His mom told him red silk was “too flamboyant” so “She got me acetate!”) Kevin also spent perfect hours watching Dynasty with his best friend Robby (and shooting longing looks at him.) Robby (Craig Woolson) has a sadder tale. “My summer was defined by what I didn’t do. When your dad’s Major Newton, you don’t have a choice.”

As their 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 outsiders. Meanwhile, an unhappy Oren complains that Winter appears poised to take over his “little niche” at the top of the brainiac scale, and that what sucks even more is that she’s a girl.  Best friends since the age of six, Robby+Kevin are no more.  For the past four weeks, they’ve had no contact, not since “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: “According to studies, a woman of forty, has much better chances of winning the lotto than getting remarried. Someone get me a knife!” Oren: “I put out the welcome mat for a nice little intimate party in my nice little penthouse flat.  On the guest list were females who know me and love me and so there I sat on my fortieth birthday … with my cat.”  Winter: “I’m shaping and toning and starving and hoping that nobody knows that I’m actually forty and golly it blows.”

Robby is a successful doctor and divorced father.  Kevin is an out-and-proud gay man dating a guy named Rafe that he’s afraid to call his boyfriend.  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 but lonely fashion icon. 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.

In my review of last year’s workshop, I wrote that “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.”  40 Is The New 15 (version 2010) takes that promising score and makes it even better.  There’s a terrific new song, “Never Look Back,” which has the 15-year-olds expressing their youthful optimism about a future not hampered by past mistakes.  Four songs from the workshop production have been replaced by new, improved ones, as evidenced by their titles. The opening number has gone from “If I Could Go Back” to the more thought-provoking “How Did I Get Here?”, Oren’s “What Next?” has become “Flying By” (a reflection on a hectic life of “debugging and debriefing and proposals gone awry”), and Winter’s “Comfortable In My Skin” is now the self-celebratory “Fabulous.” Finally, the show now closes with “Bring It On,” a far more positive finale than the previous “Still Who We Are.”  

Since last year, dialog has been sharpened and characters and relationships deepened, and though the outcome of the Kevin/Robby story remains the same, some astute rewriting now make this resolution seem absolutely right for them both.  The end result of this not insignificant tweaking is a show that feels like a finished product and no longer a work in progress.

Director Michele Spears returns from last year’s workshop doing the same assured work with an absolutely splendid (and mostly new) cast of actors who can sing with the best of them. Macofsky has been Kevin since the show’s earliest incarnations, an actor-role match that simply could not be better in a performance every bit as fabulous as Kevin himself—and sweet and touching to boot.  Though not in last summer’s workshop, Meller too has a long history as Sarah, and any L.A. appearance by this luminous Broadway vet is one to be celebrated. Her Sarah is a bundle of bubbly energy that might grate in lesser hands but delights in Meller’s.  Triple-threat Foreman is a glamorous, power-voiced treat as Winter, making an entirely believable transition from science nerd to fashion superstar. Allsopp, who has demonstrated his versatility at Actors Co-op in everything from Arthur Miller to Stephen Schwartz, plays convincingly (and delightfully) against type as geek turned gaziillionaire Oren. Woolson completes the cast in terrific fashion, doing nuanced, three-dimensional work as the troubled Robby. 

40 Is The New 15 has been double cast, and starting July 29, the following actors will be appearing in most (but not all) Thursday/Friday performances:  Patrick Foley (Kevin), Lindsey Mixon (Winter), Ed Martin (Robby), Kevin Noonchester (Oren), and Gretchen Weiss (Sarah).  (Martin and Noonchester return from last year’s workshop, where both did excellent work.)

O’Connor does triple duty, as composer, musical director, and keyboardist for the show’s first-rate four-piece band (up from just a keyboard last year). Will Back plays bass, Bob Marino drums, and Jennifer Paro guitar. 

Unlike last year’s workshop, this full production of 40 Is The New 15 has a fully realized design package. Kevin Traxler’s eye-pleasing multicolored cubic set makes for speedy, easily recognizable scene/locale switches, aided by Jeff Barton’s excellent lighting design and some clever scene-setting projections.  Susan Meier’s costumes are perfect fits for the show’s five protagonists at 15 and at 40. 40 Is The New 15 is produced by Scott Guy and stage managed by Ernie Fimbres.

As this production makes perfectly clear, creating a new musical takes years and years of revising, reworking, trimming, expanding, and workshopping to reach its final goal.  Johnson and O’Connor may well tweak their “baby” some more, but in this reviewer’s humble opinion, they’ve got it right this time around. L.A. theatergoers in search of that rare entity—an original new musical that works—have one in 40 Is The New 15.

NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.


–Steven Stanley
July 17, 2010

UPDATE:  I was able to check out the alternate cast now performing on Thursdays and Fridays and can happily report that their work is every bit as stellar as that of the cast reviewed here on opening night. While it’s true that certain actors in each cast may seem more physically “right” for their parts than their counterparts (and others may actually appear to be cast against type), the end result is ten absolutely terrific (and often quite different) performances.  Ed Martin (Robby) and Kevin Noonchester (Orin) reprise the roles they created in last summer’s workshop production, and both are simply marvelous.  Martin, an actor equally adept at straight plays as musicals, digs deep to create a Robby whose eyes speak volumes, and Noonchester makes you believe in both Orin the teenage nerd outsider and Orin the adult nerd multimillionaire.  Patrick Foley gives Kevin a goofy charm that is utterly endearing. Statuesque Lindsey Mixon is equally fabulous as the awkward teenage science geek and glamorous supermodel and TV star. Gretchen Weiss plays Sarah with a manic perkiness that wins and delights in equal measure.  Theatergoers attending any of the remaining 40 Is The New 15 performances are assured splendid performances regardless of which cast they see, and may even (like this reviewer) be inspired to catch the “other” cast before the show closes, thereby doubling their pleasure and doubling their fun. 
S.S. (8-12-10)

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