The Orange County Register
“13” is one of those shows that I ended up liking more than I thought I would. Normally, anything that features adolescents in the hothouse environment of public school should be studiously avoided. “Saved by the Bell,” “Fame” and “Room 222” come instantly to mind.
But this is no ordinary musical about pimples, rivalries and the first tentative stabs at dating. It’s a brand new creation by Jason Robert Brown, one of the most gifted composer-lyricists of his generation (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years”), so that alone earns it at least the benefit of a kid-hater’s doubt.
In its inaugural production at the Mark Taper Forum, “13” certainly isn’t perfect, and perhaps it never will be: its story about a young New Yorker’s awkward attempts to “fit in” when he moves to a foursquare Indiana town is strictly by the numbers. Its creators are often too anxious to please.
But young talent has a way of winning over even the iciest critics. This cast of 13 young actor-singer-dancers, all of them about the age of the musical’s title, is hugely gifted. While some, inevitably, are more polished and professional than others, there are no weak links in the show’s large ensemble – nor among the onstage band composed mainly of kids no older than the actors.
Fans of Brown’s music won’t want to miss this show, either. His Sondheim-like ability to convey the subtlest emotions is impressively displayed here, as is his technical prowess as a composer. The title song, “Thirteen,” is an energetic anthem to the rambunctious, never-say-die energy of kids on the verge of jumping onto the hormonal roller-coaster of puberty. Brown has scored each phrase in two-bar pairs, the first in six beats and the second in seven: 13, get it?
Evan (Rick Ashley) is the awkward newcomer who has just moved from Gotham with his mother to a middle-class neighborhood in quiet Appleton, Ind. Junior high school is a tough time to try to infiltrate long-established cliques – kids are at their most clannish and competitive then – but Evan has some hidden talents. He’s Jewish, which makes him somewhat exotic to this white-bread crowd. And he has the ability to schmooze with anybody, from the BMOC football star, Brett (J.D. Phillips) to the head cheerleader Kendra (Emma Degerstedt), the sensitive girl next door, Patrice (Sara Niemietz) to the disabled outcast, Archie (Tyler Mann).
Evan soon makes his choice: he wants to run with the hip crowd. He gets a primer from Brett, who lays it all out in “All the Cool Kids”: “You do what I do, you like what I like!”
But Evan can’t bear to leave the non-cool kids out of his orbit. He tries to arrange a meeting between Archie and Kendra (Archie is smitten with the girl, even though Patrice pronounces her “dumb as a bag of Cheetos”).
Evan’s matchmaking plan backfires, as do his attempts to invite just the right mix of guests to his upcoming bar mitzvah.
But this is a feel-good show, after all. Everything is made right in the end by some unlikely bonding and unconditional forgiveness between rivals and enemies – the only patently unrealistic moment in “13.” In my memory, real-life adolescence never allowed for such moments of blanket amnesty.
Despite the predictability of the plot, there are some unexpected twists and several poignant moments. When Archie sings his plaintive lament, “My Name is Archie,” it’s like every poem of longing ever written by a love-sick teen to the impossible object of his foolish desire.
Moments like these wouldn’t come off without the right talent on stage, and “13” has plenty to go around. Mann’s Archie is the playful yet tortured soul of the cast. Whether conning Evan into helping him court Kendra or recoiling in horror at the thought of actually talking to her, Mann steals every scene he’s in.
Niemietz provides an impressive counterweight as Patrice, a girl who’s smart and serious beyond her years – smart enough to wait patiently (mostly) while Evan comes around to realizing her friendship is worth more than all of the others put together.
Evan is the center of this turbulent little universe, and it’s a tricky role: we must see his charm and natural attractiveness but empathize with his insecurity, too. It would be easy to tip the apple cart one way or the other, but Ashley carefully balances the role right down the center. He’s a winning, naturalistic performer with the easy, playful manner of the young Matthew Broderick – the perfect actor for the part.
Director Todd Graff keeps all the youthful energy artfully corralled, for the most part, on David Gallo’s two-tiered set, but it comes spilling out into the audience many times (perhaps too many). Graff is guilty of overselling his show’s cuteness at times. The performers do that with ease. All he has to do is act as a referee and choreographer, and let their winning abilities (and Brown’s pitch-perfect songs) do the rest.
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