Barnegat Teen May Be Breakout Star of Fall TV Season

Micah Fowler in ‘Speechless’ Debuts Sept. 21
Sep 13, 2016
Supplied Photo

For several years this newspaper has been reporting on local kids who have made it big in the world of live theater.

There have been several, such as the Harrington sisters, Brigid (in “Mary Poppins” on Broadway) and Shannon (two national tours of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”); Kelsey Fowler (Broadway runs of “Grey Gardens,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Mary Poppins” and “Bonnie and Clyde”); and Gaten Matarazzo (“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Les Miserables” on Broadway).

Now a local teen has a chance to make it big on television. Barnegat’s Micah Fowler – Kelsey’s younger brother – will make his national TV debut at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 21 in a new ABC show called “Speechless.”

“The show marks a bit of a breakthrough for a network sitcom,” wrote Malcolm Venable of TV Guide, “giving visibility to a special needs kid and the unique challenges his family experiences, too. That said, producers want you to know it’s not an ‘issue’ show.”

“You hear a logline about a show with a kid with a disability, it sounds like an after-school special,” executive producer Scott Silveri said at an August gathering of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills. “We do everything we can to subvert that in the pilot. It’s not a lot of navel gazing – sitting around, ‘Woe is me.’ That’s not what the experience is.”

Fowler plays J.J. DiMeo, a teen confined to a wheelchair and speechless because of cerebral palsy. (Fowler has cerebral palsy but can speak in real life.)

For many reasons, the network has high hopes for “Speechless.” Silveri has a resume – he was a writer and executive producer for the smash sitcom “Friends.” The show’s star, playing the family’s mom Mayo DiMeo, is Minnie Driver, an Academy Award nominee for her work in “Good Will Hunting.” The show’s dad, Jimmy, is played by John Ross Bowie, who already had sitcom success playing Barry Kripke, one of Sheldon’s many nemeses on “The Big Bang Theory.”

J.J.’s younger brother, Ray, is played by Mason Cook, already a television and movie veteran best known for playing Cecil Wilson in the 2011 movie “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World.” The role of J.J.’s sister, Dylan, is played by Kyla Kenedy, who starred in the TV movie “Raising Izzie” and also had a recurring role as Mika Samuels on “The Walking Dead.” Another co-star, Cedric Yarbrough, starred on Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!”

So the show has an experienced and fairly recognizable cast.

Variety chief TV critic Maureen Ryan was, well, practically speechless when she reviewed the show. She termed “Speechless” a “wry, nimble comedy.”

“If it sustains the quality of its terrific plot, ‘Speechless’ is likely to emerge as the best new broadcast network comedy of the year,” she predicted.

The critic also had praise for Fowler, saying he “gives a performance that is every bit as rich and energetic as those given by the rest of the skilled cast.”

Neil Genzlinger, writing for The New York Times, also raved about the show.

“I watched the pilot episode over the summer at Camp Communicate in Maine, which is for children who use (like J.J. and Stephen Hawking) alternative-communication devices. Staff members and campers watching with me agreed: Whoever’s behind this show gets it.

“There’s a reason for that: The show’s creator, Scott Silveri, grew up in a home much like the one in ‘Speechless,’ with a nonverbal brother with cerebral palsy and other health issues.”

Finally, “Speechless” is being given a strong time slot, following “The Goldbergs” and proceeding “Modern Family,” although it will run against the second half of “Survivor” on CBS.

ABC, saying “everyone’s real busy leading up to the premiere,” put off a SandPaper interview with Fowler until “later this month.” Look for that interview soon, along with one with Matarazzo, who is currently appearing in the Netflix show “Stranger Things.”

Like Fowler, Matarazzo, a Little Egg Harbor resident, lives with a disease. Matarazzo has cleidocranial dysplasia, a rare genetic disorder that affects the development of bones and teeth.

Rick Mellerup

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