October 6, 2008
THEATER REVIEW | '13'
Stranger in Strange Land: The Acne Years
By BEN BRANTLEY
Youth isnt 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 cant imagine that anyone who isnt 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 cant 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. Browns 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.
Its 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 Sittenfelds Prep, or in a lighter vein, a movie like Mean Girls.
But 13 treats Evans pursuit of Popularity (and when youre 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 dellarte, 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 Kendras 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 Gattellis 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 Archies 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. Ill 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 thats deliberate on the part of the shows creators, to allow young audience members to project themselves onto archetypal personas. But if Im 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.
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown; book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn; directed by Jeremy Sams; choreography by Christopher Gattelli; sets and costumes by David Farley; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Jon Weston; executive producer, 101 Productions Ltd.; associate producers, Shorenstein Hays Nederlander/the Araca Group; music director, Tom Kitt; arrangements and orchestrations, Mr. Brown. Presented by Bob Boyett, Roger Berlind, Tim Levy, Ken Davenport, Ted Hartley, Stacey Mindich, Jane Bergère, Broadway Across America, Sharon Karmazin, Carl Moellenberg, Tom Miller, True Love Productions/Olympus Theatricals and Center Theater Group. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Al Calderon (Eddie), Eamon Foley (Richie), Caitlin Gann (Molly), Elizabeth Egan Gillies (Lucy), Ariana Grande (Charlotte), Aaron Simon Gross (Archie), Malik Hammond (Malcom), Joey La Varco (Simon), Delaney Moro (Kendra), Eric M. Nelsen (Brett), Graham Phillips (Evan), Corey J. Snide (Evan), Allie Trimm (Patrice) and Brynn Williams (Cassie).