Review: Playhouse Merced’s “13: The Musical” is shining a light on local youth talent

We were going to write a review on Playhouse Merced’s current production, “13: The Musical,” to let everyone who hasn’t heard about it yet know just how much they need to attend! Unfortunately, however, they are sold out. Our “super short version of the review” goes like this: WOW!!!!!!!

If you want to hear how great the show is, even though it’s too late for you to purchase a ticket to see it, you can now read our slightly longer review:

Alfonso Garcia

What has Merced County put in their water that is producing such talented young men and women?! If I didn’t know better, I’d say Playhouse Merced has been recruiting its talent from Hollywood and convincing all the best singers and actors to move to Merced.  How is it possible to have such a high-quality production using only local youth? I’ve heard people say there is nothing to do in Merced, and that most of the kids are troublemakers, but Playhouse Merced just proved those people wrong.

Emmaleigh Irish

Directed by Rachel Pearre, 13 is a musical that tells the story of Evan (played by Baylor Browning), a 13 year-old who feels like his life is falling apart as he is forced to leave New York and move to Indiana after his parents’ divorce.  He struggles with trying to become friends with the popular crowd while at the same time keeping his friendship with Patrice (played by Cossette Asenjo), who is about as unpopular as you can get.

Malcomb Bennett-Young (center)

Football star Brett (played by Edmond Bennett-Young) holds the power to make Evan popular, but Evan has to enlist the “cripple boy with a terminal illness” Archie (played by Aidan O’Herin) to help with that. Of course, you can’t leave out one of the most important things to teenagers: relationships! Lucy (played by Madison Mitchell) finds a way to interfere with Kendra’s (played by Emmaleigh Irish) relationship (with who will be a secret). That’s about all of the storyline we will reveal because we don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone.

Enough of the synopsis…let’s talk talent! If you’ve ever been to a school talent show, you are used to lots of “kids” singing, trying to be the next Beyonce, and usually not with any success. You sit through song after song of each nervous child barely singing into the mic, staring at the ground, and oftentimes not singing in the same key that the background track is playing in. Thanks to Playhouse Merced, and in particular to their Young Artist Conservatory, school productions and talent shows are slowly starting to get packed with more and more talent, and the earplugs you used to keep in your bag are no longer needed.

Baylor Browning

If you’ve watch productions at Playhouse, you have probably seen a lot of these faces before, and for a good reason: because they’re good (how’s that for a black-and-white-leaving-no-room-for-arbitrary-interpretation-statement)! Baylor Browning has performed many lead roles in Playhouse productions. This total triple threat acting-singing-dancing star usually steals every scene and show he is in. Unfortunately, we are going to be losing him soon. A senior at El Capitan High School, he will be moving to New York for college in the fall to study musical theater. Baylor Browning is a name you’ll want to remember, and when he is starring in a Broadway musical, you’ll be able to say “I saw him at Playhouse Merced and I was only 35 feet away from him!!!!” Browning’s portrayal of Evan was everything we expect to see: great acting skills, dancing skills that show up out of nowhere, and beautiful tenor voice that goes into falsetto with ease leaves the audience wanting to see him even more.

Cossette Asenjo

Cossette Asenjo, a freshman at El Capitan High School (I’m seeing a trend), played Patrice and was the other lead in the musical with quite a few solos. Asenjo can sing the softest of songs beautiful with the perfect emotion and vibrato, but the last few years she has also developed strength in her upper register and abilty to “belt it out” while still maintaining a nice musical tone.

Aidan O’Herin

Aidan O’Herin did a great job playing Archie, handling his crutches and portrayal of a kid with a fatal disease quite well (that description as well as the one in quotes in the fourth paragraph become clear when you hear the songs stating the obvious). He also had a number of vocal solos, and though he hasn’t quite mastered controlled vibrato, his ability to match pitch was mostly good, and his vocal tone was smooth and strong. This can be said about all of the many young men in the musical. At his age, while the voices are changing, it is very easy for males to be afraid to sing out of fear of their voice cracking, or being very uncomfortable singing as they figure out where their voice is going to settle at. The fact that all the young men in 13 acted like pros and didn’t shy away from anything is a testament to the teaching that Playhouse Merced and the Young Artist Conservatory is doing. Everyone should be extremely proud of the accomplishments and excellence that is going on at Playhouse.

Spencer Brown (left) and Kalani Perez

Speaking of not shying away from anything, let’s talk about Spencer Brown (Eddie) and Kalani Perez (Malcolm). If there was ever someone needed to steal the show, these two fit that bill. It is hard to put into words now, but just imagine watching the funniest thing you’ve ever seen and laughing nonstop: that’s that these two stars accomplished. I’m guessing director Rachel Pearre gave instructions along the lines of “Do the absolute cheesiest and stereotypical dance moves, and then make it even more cheezy, and multiply that by 10.”

The comedic relief these two characters provided was out of this world. And the fact again that they are young men is even more special.

Spencer Brown and Kalani Perez

Most adolescent boys are very self-conscious, and if you said “dance like a girl who thinks she can dance but is awful,” boys will shut down. Nope. Not these two. These “background dancers” should go on tour so audiences around the country can laugh with (and at) them the same way the Playhouse audience was able to.  Again, this is hard to put into words, so just trust me when I say these two are hilarious, and their “dancing,” acting, and singing skills just put the cherry on top of a delicious hot fudge sundae.

I could easily write a paragraph about every single actor and actress in this musical, but I have things I need to do soon so this will have to be cut short. Every single person that was on the stage was great and contributed to the musical in a very positive way. The other lead rolls were great, the full ensemble pieces were spot on, with full harmony, dancing, and energy that put a smile on your face that couldn’t go away no matter how hard you tried. From the girls battling with relationships and singing their solos, to the ensemble members that popped out some great solos in the middle of the big production numbers, it was clear that Playhouse Merced is making a positive impact in our community and providing our children with the education and skills that they will carry with them through life.

I do however have to say one thing I’m really disappointed about with this show: There are only three performances! In case you missed the first paragraph, the show is completely sold out. I’m sure that if it ran another weekend, all those shows would sell out as well. I don’t know if the limited shows is due to the performance rights Playhouse had with the writers of the show, or the busy schedule that Playhouse has as well as all the performers with the end of the school year coming up, but I really wish there was at least another weekend of this musical so I could watch it a second time.

We would like to say a big congratulations to everyone involved in this production. You are doing great things, and don’t ever stop! Also a big “thank you” to Razzari Automotive for sponsoring this musical.

Photo credit: Shawn Overton, Playhouse Merced