NO WAY! A MUSICAL FOR EARLY TEENS!
by John Topping
published October 10, 2008
now playing on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs
The way Broadway has taken
on the habit of turning ordinary films into musicals, you might think that 13 is based on the movie starring Evan Rachel Wood as a
troubled teenager and Holly Hunter as her mom who doesn’t know what to do with her. But there is
no such drug experimentation or dangerous rebellion on the stage of the Bernard Jacobs Theater.
What it does have is 13 talented and (not surprisingly) energetic all-teenage singer/actors backed up by a stunningly professional 5-person
all-teenage band – Broadway’s first all-teenage cast! – in a show that appears to have been scripted by all-teenage writers. Are you as
glad as I am not to be working backstage on this production?
If you’ve ever been to a
high school musical, you will usually find one or two performers who seem precociously ready for Broadway. 13 has the sense that all of those kids have been plucked from various high schools and thrown into
the big time. There’s also a feeling that their talent is not 100% fully-developed – which
doesn’t mean that it’s not impressive (and which, in fact, works to the show’s advantage). How any or all of this compares next to the
amazingly successful High School Musical franchise is unknown to this reviewer.
As the result of a divorce,
12-year-old Evan (Graham Phillips) has just moved from ultra-hip New York City to really square Appleton, Indiana. Right before his bar mitzvah! What could be
worse? The only thing Appleton has going for it is … well, a really nice girl, Patrice
(Allie Trimm), whom he’s already great friends with when we join him in his new world. And
then there’s the whole school of kids who, through the merciless onslaught of commercialism, one presumes, are urbanized enough as to
seem indistinguishable from big city kids in both dress and attitude. But he’s the only Jew
the school has ever seen! And boy, let me tell you, once everyone catches wind of this, it’s …
really not a problem at all. The big issue is that the bar mitzvah should – nay, must –
be a big affair. He needs to ingratiate himself with his new schoolmates, particularly Brett
(Eric M. Nelson, one of the relatively seasoned performers), the jock whose whims are law.
Since Brett is willing to go, everyone else is willing to go, too … as long as that (alleged) geek Patrice isn’t invited. And we know she’s unpopular because she’s … well, she’s not ugly; nor does she have any kind of,
say, deformity; nor does she have a voice like fingernails on a chalkboard. Furthermore, she
isn’t mean, she isn’t arrogant, she isn’t richer or poorer than the other kids, she isn’t weird, she doesn’t wear big glasses that shout
“geek” from across the room (she doesn’t wear glasses at all). The reason no one likes her is
obviously because … they just don’t, okay? And so, in order to show his solidarity with the
concept of placing popularity above friendship, he rips up Patrice’s invitation in front of her and the whole school. Isn’t this guy awesome?! That pretty much wraps up the first 15 minutes. Complications,
Soon the character of Archie
is introduced (the extremely appealing Aaron Simon Gross), a kid with a degenerative disease, a short life expectancy and a pair of
crutches. The musical number “Terminal Illness” and a slew of, er, good-natured cripple jokes
explore the boundaries of taste. My guess is that dis-, or if you prefer, differently-abled
people might be more embracing than boycott-threatening with this risky aspect. He’s a major
character, and a likeable one (if more than a tad manipulative). And the boldness of squeezing
humor out of his situation, since it’s not derisive and he’s not pitiable, will most likely be appreciated. Still, it’s a mighty thin line they’re walking. But if that
community does call for a boycott, it will probably be the best publicity the show could get.
What 13 has most going for it, besides the talent, are the songs (by Jason Robert Brown); but it’s an uneven
asset. Originally staged in Los Angeles, followed by Goodspeed, only 6 of the 16 songs in the
present incarnation survived all three versions. To these ears, there are many moments of
interesting musical passages, but the songs rarely become totally alive, often because the lyrics are not particularly compelling, or are
merely expositional (Picture me / just another cool kid in NYC / near the park and the Met / Life is sweet / Yankees in the Bronx,
pretzels on the street / just how good can it get?). (The major exception is “Bad Bad
News,” performed by Al Calderon, Malik Hammond, Joey LaVarco and Eamon Foley, which deservedly brought down the house.) The pleasant penultimate number, “A Little More Homework,” with its invocation of the passage of time
(Day turns to day turns to day turns to day turns to day), appears to be a bid to fill in the void created by the recently-closed
Rent’s “Seasons of Love” (i.e., Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes).
But no matter how talented
the cast, and even with a few good songs, there’s very little to recommend it. The book (by Dan
Elish and Robert Horn) is what has become (sub)standard second-rate Broadway fare. It’s not
interesting, it’s not inspiring, it’s not convincing. In plain talk, it’s just not
good. For grown-ups anyway. Although it may bring a
new young audience into the theater, it’s a bit like training them from a young age to be comfortable paying ever more exorbitant ticket
prices for mediocre returns. On the other hand, it’s targeted to a young demographic whose tastes
aren’t yet terribly sophisticated, nor should they be, necessarily (after all, do you still like all the same shows you liked when you were
13?). Still, it’s a shame that it doesn’t incorporate multiple levels of entertainment that would
allow the parents, guardians or whoever is footing the bill to enjoy the proceedings, too. But,
like, whatever, you know? If the kids are seeing a show that speaks to them, and creates a new generation of theatergoers, then here’s hoping
they see it (though I still feel luckier that my introduction to professional musical theater around the same age was A Chorus
And besides, how many
musicals actually have the target demographic of the audience – 13 – built so efficiently into the title? If this continued as a trend, it might be worth renaming all of the long-running tuners. Mamma Mia! could be renamed Female; The Lion
King could be called Family; South Pacific could be
Sophisticate; The Phantom of the Opera could be Tourist; and Mary Poppins could be Sucker.