Also see Sharon's review of Macbeth
And the truly stunning fact about 13 is that it's not a song cycle and it's not just a gimmick; it's a real damn musical. It just happens to be a musical about teenagers that uses, for lack of a better term, "traditional casting."
Now, that doesn't mean it's a particularly deep musical - it doesn't have to be. Call it this generation's answer to Grease, with an electric guitar-driven score and a friendship where the central romance would have been.
The book (by Dan Elish) follows the story of Evan Goldman, a New York Jewish kid transplanted to Appleton, Indiana when he parents separated. He's on the verge of his Bar Mitzvah (performed, he notes, by a rabbi they found on the Internet) and he's really only got one friend to speak of: Patrice, a local girl he made friends with over the summer. But now that school has started (at Dan Quayle Junior High), Evan recognizes that Patrice is an outcast from the cool kids. And Evan really wants to be accepted by the in-crowd. The central premise is set up fairly early on: the cool kids will provisionally accept Evan and attend his Bar Mitzvah, as long as he does what they say. And what they say is to stop hanging out with Patrice.
You can see where this is going a mile away. Indeed, with the plot element of a Bar Mitzvah being when one "becomes a man," the show pretty much hits you over the head with it. This is going to be about Evan deciding what's really important, and growing up, and apologizing to Patrice, and doing the right thing no matter what the consequences.
And, in fact, that's largely where the show goes. It goes there with energetic numbers, and peppy choreography, and loud voices and a house band that generates an enthusiasm reminiscent of School of Rock. It goes there with a light musical comedy sensibility that doesn't take itself all too seriously, and some impressive acrobatics, and kids playing the adult roles with a wink and a nudge.
And it would all be an entertaining piece of mindless fluff, excepting that sometimes, it wonderfully elevates itself over the trite plot it promises. Take Archie, a disabled kid who tries to make friends with Evan. Now, Plotlines-R-Us dictates that the disabled kid is going to be a sweet and sympathetic outcast whom Evan befriends. But, in 13, Archie is a manipulative little bastard who threatens to crash Evan's party with his unwanted crippled self unless Evan does a favor for him. The plot instantly complicates, and we're reminded that this ain't Heidi.
At times, the electric guitar sits out a song, and we get a more soulful, piano-driven song. The lyrics aren't exactly models of subtlety, but Brown's touching music and the kids' honest delivery brings many unexpectedly to tears. As much as we try to deny it, we were all 13 once, and these musical vocalizations of feelings we've all experienced hit nerves we didn't know were still tender.
The show still needs work. About two-thirds of the way in, the arm-waving and ankle-crossing turns of the choreography start feeling repetitive. The young cast often does not know when to wait for applause, and lines - particular scene-cappers at the end of songs - easily get lost. But the biggest problem with the piece is its ending. We see Evan learn what he has to learn and do what he has to do - his evolution is a natural one, coming organically from the show itself. Others in the show also change, but it is without any rhyme or reason. That would be acceptable if 13 was the juvenile piece of musical theatre cotton candy it initially looked to be; but it raised the stakes and touched on something really remarkable, and that demands a more realistic ending.
13 plays at the Mark Taper Forum through February 18, 2007. For tickets and information, see www.centertheatregroup.org.
Center Theatre Group - Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director presents 13. Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown; Book by Dan Elish. Scenic Design David Gallo; Costume Design Candice Cain; Lighting Design Mike Baldassari; Sound Design Duncan Robert Edwards; Projection Design Zachary Borovay; Wig and Hair Design Carol F. Doran; Music Director David O; Band Director Craig Wolynez; Casting Erika Sellin, CSA and Jen Rudin Pearson, CSA; Associate Producer Neel Keller; Production Stage Manager William Coiner; Stage Managers James T. McDermott and Elizabeth Atkinson. Produced by Special Arrangement with Bob Boyett; Choreography by Michele Lynch; Directed by Todd Graff.