I can't remember the last Broadway musical with a big Torah number. Then again, I can't remember a leading man six years shy of legal drinking age.
All that (and more) adds up to "13," the disarmingly charming new musical that opened last night.
With a raw, rousing score by Jason Robert Brown sung by a cast of 13- to 17-year-olds, it's Sondheim for MySpacers - the perfect show for those too old for Disney, too young for "Spring Awakening," and too impatient to wait for a new block of "Wicked" tickets.
Actually, it wouldn't have hurt if Dan Elish and Robert Horn had gotten a bit more wicked with their book. This one does for teens what "In the Heights" does for Latinos - airbrushes them into some G-rated version of the real thing: a middle school minus zits, profanity and obvious orthodontia.
Then again, there hasn't been this much talk about "getting tongue" since "Cry-Baby" left town. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
"13" turns on Evan Goldman (15-year-old Graham Phillips), a New Yorker on the cusp of manhood. His bar mitzvah's coming up, and he's all set - until his parents' divorce sends him off to small-town Indiana (looking like an ashy, Ansel Adams landscape in David Farley's witty set).
Evan's soon befriended by the smart, sweet Patrice (the winsome Allie Trimm), a Betty adrift in a sea of Veronicas. Surprise: Patrice isn't popular. And if Evan wants a full house doing the hora, he's going to have to dump her.
Will he refuse to kowtow to the cool kids and stand by the friend who counts? Are the Jonas Brothers on YouTube?
As well-traveled as the road is, this one's full of delightful detours - like the perils of stealing a kiss during a slasher flick. Brown, the 38-year-old Tony-winning composer of "Parade" and "The Last Five Years," has written some catchy numbers and at least one winsome ballad, "What It Means To Be a Friend," that clearly registered with its young audience.
Director Jeremy Sams gets a few standout performances, notably from Elizabeth Egan Gillies, 15, whose lacerating Lucy, all cellphone and attitude, is a junior-varsity Joan Crawford. And should they ever mount a teen version of "The Producers," they'll find a fine Leo Bloom in Aaron Simon Gross, whose disabled character has a secret swagger in his crutches.
The show ends with a pure "School of Rock" note, as members of the ensemble bust some moves and sing their hearts out.
Heartening, too, is seeing so many Abercrombie-clad butts in theater seats. Will these kids pass from here to "South Pacific" or "Sweeney Todd," or will this be as challenging as live theater gets?
Only time will tell. Meanwhile, should the folks at "Jersey Boys" find themselves short a Four Season, they should get a gander at these new kids on the block.
Youth isn’t only for the young, at least not as a marketable commodity in popular entertainment. On Broadway as in Hollywood, there will always be generation-crossing shows displaying fresh-fleshed things in hormonally induced states of agony and ecstasy. Think of musicals like “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “Spring Awakening,” all of which appealed to those demographic rarities, theatergoers in their teens and 20s, but still spoke to older folks who remembered their own years of acne-dotted angst and laughed or sighed in sympathy.
That said, I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t in early adolescence would be crazy about “13,” the shiny and brash new musical about growing up geeky that opened Sunday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. Featuring a cast of 13 performers, all under 18, and a band drawn from the same age pool, “13” certainly has on tap that natural radioactive energy that makes young teenagers so appealing and so scary.
Yet as one who remembers being 13 with vividness and enduring horror, I can’t say that these obviously talented kids ever made me shiver, sweat or even smile in honest recollection. Though it features a buoyant score by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years”) and a book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn that dances friskily on the borders of bad taste, “13” ultimately feels as pre-processed and formulaic as that money-churning Disney franchise “High School Musical.”
Before I go any further, let me say that the 14-year-old performing arts student who accompanied me to “13” thought it was “pretty good.” He had praise for the polished singing of the cast and even more for the musicians, who play Mr. Brown’s bubbling score with undeniable flair. He also said he had found himself in situations like those portrayed in “13,” which charts the social-climbing career of one Evan Goldman (Graham Phillips), a New York boy transplanted to a new school in the American heartland.
It’s safe to assume that pretty much anyone who went through the American public education system during the last 50 years will find the story familiar. Looking back, I see now that junior high school (as it was called then) came closer to the brutal social politics of a Balzac novel than any other chapter in my life. The amoral ruthlessness of those years can still make me wince when summoned with the right details by a novel like Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep,” or in a lighter vein, a movie like “Mean Girls.”
But “13” treats Evan’s pursuit of Popularity (and when you’re 13, the word carries a capital P) in broad generic terms spiced with topical references, as if enacting an ages-old ritual dressed up in Abercrombie & Fitch and accessorized with cellphones. The characters are as eternal as types in commedia dell’arte, and the plot as set as that of a Passion play by way of young adult fiction.
When his parents separate, Evan is whisked by his mother from Manhattan to the thrills-free town of Appleton, Ind. His bar mitzvah is coming up, and he really, really wants the hippest kids in his school to attend, even though it means betraying his true soul mates, the honorable but unpopular Patrice (Allie Trimm) and the witty pariah Archie (Aaron Simon Gross), who has a degenerative neuromuscular disorder and walks with crutches.
On the other side of the social divide loom the blindingly blond sports star Brett (Eric M. Nelsen), who lusts after the virginal cheerleader Kendra (Delaney Moro) and is lusted after by Kendra’s skanky best friend, Lucy (Elizabeth Egan Gillies). In his eagerness to be accepted, Evan finds himself disastrously negotiating his classmates’ romances for them.
With bright, flat cartoon sets by David Farley and briskly exaggerated direction by Jeremy Sams, the show unfolds with less multidimensionality than your average graphic novel. It begins promisingly, with a rousing opening number (set in Manhattan) that captures the electric ambivalence of entering adolescence. (Christopher Gattelli’s otherwise unremarkable choreography is at its best here.) And its concluding moral comes in a sweetly harmonized anthem about growing up called “A Little More Homework.”
In between, the show relies heavily on the charm of young ’uns belting adenoidally, which for me at least, wears on the ears. The tone of the songs swings from boundary-pushing flippancy (the emotional blackmail ballad “Terminal Illness,” about Archie’s medical condition) to earnest sentimentality (“What It Means to Be a Friend”).
There are some clever lyrics and genuinely funny jokes along the way. (“Come on,” says Patrice to the newly arrived Evan. “I’ll show you the hillside where everyone waits for the Resurrection.”) And there is one inspired sequence set in a movie theater where a splatter film spoils the mood for the boys who want to put the moves on their dates.
The cast is fine. It avoids pushing too hard, which is always a mercy with young performers. Mr. Phillips has an easygoing forthrightness and emotional openness that anchors the production. (His role is played on Saturday nights by Corey J. Snide.) And Mr. Gross projects a winning acerbic wistfulness as a self-styled Tiny Tim who has decided to exploit his disability.
But mostly the characters never emerge as genuine individuals. Maybe that’s deliberate on the part of the show’s creators, to allow young audience members to project themselves onto archetypal personas. But if I’m going to revisit the worst years of my life, I need some fresh insights — or at least a sustained, authentic rush of the painful glory that is youth — to make it worth my while.
In case anyone missed the lesson learned from "High School Musical" and its endlessly multiplying spawn, kids these days are quite comfortable watching their fictional counterparts burst into song to express their feelings. So the target audience for "13" should have no trouble identifying with the characters onstage as they tunefully reflect on friendship, crushes, popularity, acceptance and tongue action. There's not much in this sweet all-adolescent tuner to engage anyone past puberty, but the other lesson of the Disney franchise is that a narrowly defined demographic is no barrier to success.
The question is whether that principle can apply on Broadway. Television and film don't need to reach beyond their core audience to be a hit, and concert or legit ventures spun out of "HSM" or the Miley Cyrus phenomenon are virtually presold to an already rabid fanbase. But "13" is attempting to build a following from the ground up -- with nary a Jonas Brother or Cheetah Girl in sight. Given that Broadway ducats are out of reach on most allowances, the show's producers have their marketing work cut out for them.
That's not to say "13" doesn't have assets. While the storyline by children's novelist Dan Elish and vet TV writer Robert Horn is a familiar fish-out-of-water tale populated by generics (geek, loser, gossip girl, beauty, jock, etc.), it has heart and charm. The kids in the age-appropriate cast are talented. And the score by Jason Robert Brown ("Parade"), which nimbly straddles pop and musical theater idioms, is several notches above the standard processed pap for teen tuners.
Firmly entrenched within the cool crowd at his Upper West Side Manhattan junior high school, Evan (Graham Phillips) has the world at his feet until infidelity ruptures his parents' marriage and Mom packs them off to live in Appleton, Ind., just as he's about to turn 13. But the biggest adjustment problem facing Evan appears to be planning a blowout Bar Mitzvah in a nowhere town where he's the lone Jew.
Opportunities for humor built around that cultural shift are largely ignored by Elish and Horn, though the traditional rites of the Bar Mitzvah -- responsibility, maturity, ethical enlightenment -- are reflected in Evan's journey toward self-knowledge.
Soon after relocating, he sparks up a friendship with geeky neighbor Patrice (Allie Trimm). In a John Hughes universe, Patrice would be Molly Ringwald, but there's nothing here to indicate why all the popular kids hate and ostracize her. Maybe her bad knitwear? The outsider status of disabled Archie (Aaron Simon Gross) is more obvious in the cruel world of teendom, even if this is a fairly toothless bunch.
The show's big conflict revolves around Evan compromising his friendship with Patrice and Archie while sucking up to skater dude Brett (Eric M. Nelsen) and his vapid cheerleader girlfriend, Kendra (Delaney Moro), in order to lure the shallow party crowd to his Bar Mitzvah. Trouble surfaces out of Archie's romantic designs on Kendra and from the duplicitous machinations of Lucy (Elizabeth Egan Gillies) to poison her BFF Kendra's budding romance with Brett and win the jock for herself.
OMG, it's all sooooo complicated. Much as it will seem a yawn to most adults, the scenario no doubt will connect with teens, who generally are more willing to attach life-or-death urgency to playground politics. And Evan's lesson in values will resonate as loud and clear as the homework/growth metaphor.
The show can't be accused of overreaching, but if the story had been told with more wit, complexity or universal insight, there might have been something here for the rest of us.
Led by Phillips with a balance of self-possession and youthful awkwardness, the cast is captivating in a quiet rather than ingratiating way. Humor comes primarily from Al Calderon and Malik Hammond as Brett's wannabe-cool sidekicks (their "Bad Bad News" is a high point), and from Gross, whose disarming take on a kid living with a degenerative muscular disorder is refreshingly free from mawkishness. The potential to use Archie's disability for sympathetic leverage is amusingly conveyed in "Terminal Illness."
Brown's melodic songs are well crafted and do the job of bumping the thin story along as they shift from energized teen anthems to ballads to comedy numbers. But the composer's work tends to bounce around in tone and rhythm, making it difficult to sing for performers whose voices are still developing. At times the kids struggle to compete with the ornate pop orchestrations played by a six-piece band of under-18 musicians -- led by sole grown-up Tom Kitt.
David Farley's costumes are accurate approximations of teen style, but aside from a droll transition from the vivid colors and hard outlines of New York to the drabness of Indiana, his cartoon set designs are a little flat.
Director Jeremy Sams steers the action efficiently enough but seems to have less rapport with the kids than choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who successfully channels their awkward, barely coordinated exuberance into movement with an appealing unrefined edge. Letting them cut loose and go crazy more often, like in infectious curtain number "Brand New You," might have given this cute but unprepossessing show more spark.