The new musical 40 is the New 15 has the distinction of being the first musical produced by the Academy for New Musical Theatre, while a workshop presentation of it was, deservedly, nominated for a GLAAD Media Award. The play features an outstanding ensemble cast in an entertaining, insightful look at not only the aging process, but at gay issues. 40’s concept is that the mid-life crisis triggered by hitting 40 is similar to starting high school, another crossroads in the odyssey and oddity of our existences. Of course, the difference is that for the majority of people, when you’re a freshman, most of life is still ahead of us, while entering our forties generally means most of life is behind us. How have the decisions we’ve made impacted the course of our lives? And, as playwright Larry Todd Johnson notes, “how inevitable some of our life-choices seem, in retrospect.”
Indeed. The introspective story is imaginatively told through a flashback structure, and begins with each of the five adult characters singing how they feel to a shrink. At the sold-out premiere (the cast varies in subsequent performances), Dana Meller (who played Eponine on Broadway in Les Mis) depicts Sarah with just the right touch of desperation. This none-too-bright girl jock is a former high school star athlete, whose Springsteen-eque glory days are way, way behind her. It’s amusing to see that old saw about the male school sports idol who fails to live up to expectations and amounts to nothing after graduation (consider Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) turned on its head, by having that cliché transgendered into a female athlete. (Speaking of which, Nadia Comineci call home.)
John Allsopp, who has an impressive array of stage and TV credits, convincingly portrays another school trope: the geek. Unlike his more athletic, “cooler” classmates, Oren grows up to become one of those successful Silicon Valley high tech types – although with his hectic work schedule he remains romantically challenged.
Of all the characters, Karole Freeman seems to most play against type. Her bespectacled Winter Graham (spelled like “the cracker,” not the unit of measurement, she insists) is a Black female nerd who, like Oren -- the arch-competitor she outshines at the science fair (much to Oren’s consternation, his male pride pierced by a mere girl!) -- is a science and math whiz. During the high school flashback scenes she’s a sort of female Urkel of the Family Matters sitcom.
Tod Macofsky’s (a member of the Gay Men’s Chorus of L.A.) effeminate character Kevin is a musical theater aficionado and fan of female gymnastics and track events who idolizes Sarah. Kevin is considered to be “flamboyant” – until he has a homosexual awakening after he turns 15, a disastrous incident with long-term consequences. As an openly gay character coping with an often hostile straight (or seemingly straight) world, Kevin is possibly the most introspective of the 40-year-olds, although he’s had a series of failed romances with partners he always finds fault with.
Theater and TV veteran Craig probably portrays 40’s most complex character. (Note to readers: plot spoiler alert.) The son of a military officer, Robby is putatively straight. Even after he and Kevin are discovered in a compromising position by his father, Robby tries to live up to parental expectations – although he never can, despite the fact that he marries and has a child.
Robby lives life as a lie, and the closeted character has one of 40’s best songs, Better Left Unsaid, about how his alcoholic mother and soldier father always hold back and never say or talk about what they really feel. Don’t ask, don’t tell, indeed. (By the way, Kevin is often called “K.P.” by the other characters -- this may be a sly military reference, to a persecuted gay doing “K.P. (kitchen patrol) duty,” which has been a form of punishment in the armed forces)
My favorite number is called 25 Years From Now. Sung by the entire ensemble, in their freshman year the quintet optimistically imagine a world a quarter century hence, when horrors like poverty, war and world hungry will be things of the past. Alas! With two contemporary wars and a deep recession, we all know how that wistful dream turned out. Since they were singing during the 1980s, I am somewhat skeptical that 15 year olds were so optimistic during the Reagan era. It seems like an anthem more fitting for my ‘60s/’70s generation, but it’s nice to think that perhaps youth is eternally hopeful. Anyway, if this middle-aged scribbler knew when he was a 15-year-old revolutionary how things would turn out today, his too, too solid flesh would probably have melted then.
I had the most questions about Freeman’s character. Her anti-stereotypical Winter takes a 90 degree turn after graduating and becomes more of a familiar type of African-American image with show biz panache, although, to be fair, her mid-life crisis leads Winter back to her nerdy roots. Of course, this stretch demonstrates the range of Freeman’s acting talent. While the play excels in delineating homosexual issues, it does little to shed light on racial issues, which, alas, remain a major bugaboo, even in Obama’s America. Race is only mentioned in passing in 40, and an interracial romance is not even commented upon. Perhaps this is because bookwriter Johnson is gay, and both he and his longtime collaborator, composer Cindy O’Connor, are Caucasian. (This info is derived from 40’s playbill.)
Another point: the way the adult Kevin and Robby resolve (or don’t) their relationship a quarter century on also raised this critic’s eyebrows. Really? (See for yourself reader and let this reviewer know what you think.) In any case, the musical ends on a high note of optimism, as the desperate, disparate characters, who have reunited after having gone their separate ways over the years, face life and what it has to throw at us with a renewed upbeat attitude. Possibly their reunion after decades has something to do with this.
O’Connor’s music, accompanied by a live band, is pleasantly enjoyable, although there are no toe-tapping numbers I hummed walking out the theater’s doors. Johnson’s lyrics are bright and playful although I frequently was able to guess the oncoming rhyming word. Kevin Traxler’s set and lighting design includes images projected onto a screen that cleverly uses Rorschach Test pictures, which coyly suggest the characters’ therapy and psychoanalysis. The ensemble is deftly directed by Michele Spears, while the play is produced by Scott Guy, Executive Director of the Academy for New Musical Theatre.
ANMT is presenting “the Biz of the Musical Theatre Biz Conference” July 23-25 at the NoHo Arts Center, which this critic will attend and cover. Hopefully, 40 is the New 15 is the first of many musicals ANMT produces. Whether you are 40 or 15 or whatever, this is a highly recommended, amusing, enlightening musical for children and theatergoers of all ages – and sexual preferences.
40 is the New 15 is being performed through Aug. 22 at the NoHo Arts Center, 5628 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood, CA 91601. For tickets and showtimes: (818)506-8500; for more info: www.anmt.org.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”