It might be useful to approach 13 the way auteur critics from André Bazin to Andrew Sarris used to examine American studio movies. Those critics would look at Hollywood films and reveal the consistent styles and themes of directors who, in their day, were never considered artists at all. Directors like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher, Douglas Sirk, etc., are now accorded high status, as are their films. Filmmaking, even more so than musical theater, is a collaborative art but, thanks to the auteur critics, directors finally received their due. In musical theater, however, the driving force isn't the direction; it's the score. When we think of musicals we think of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Ahrens & Flaherty, not the people who directed their musicals. Now consider the new show that opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, which could easily be dismissed as a generic coming of age story set to music. What distinguishes it from similar shows that run the gamut from The Johnny at this year's Fringe Festival to the Disney juggernaut High School Musical is the very thing that makes this a musical in the first place: its score. Think of Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the show's music and lyrics, as the auteur of 13 and it becomes a far more personal and emotionally connected piece of work. It becomes, in a word, art.
Whether in a serious musical like the composer's Parade, in which a Jew is an outsider living in the South, or here in the light musical comedy 13 in which we have a young Jewish boy suddenly living in a small town in Indiana, both are lox out of bagel stories. In the former, being Jewish gets the hero killed. In the latter, it finally means accepting he won't be popularwhich at 13 is a near death experience.
Plot aside, which after all is credited to Dan Elish and Robert Horn, the score is the show's calling card. It features a wonderfully dark sense of humor in songs like "Terminal Illness" and "Bad, Bad News" as well as clever cuteness in tunes such as "What it Means to be a Friend" and "The Lamest Place in the World." Also, one doesn't make hay in the musical theater world without the ability to write an anthem for our time, and Jason Robert Brown comes through with an appropriate approach for a thirteen year old: "A Little More Homework." In short, Jason Robert Brown is a very talented composer who writes genuine musical theater songs that entertain, reveal character, and move the plot along. Look around; the breed is in short supply.
This appreciation for the score does not excuse the sound design that doesn't soften the harsh sound of the group numbers, nor does it buy the perfectly adorable Patrice (Allie Trimm) as the most hated girl in school. It would have been more courageous to make Patrice look and sound more like an outsider rather than a potential Student Council President. Nonetheless, the book contains some very funny dialogue, and the set design by David Farley is so successfully wrought that at one pivotal moment it gets its own big, and much deserved, laugh from the audience.
Graham Phillips plays Evan, the young Jewish hero of our story (Corey J. Snide performs on Saturday nights) with charming self-assurance. Also winning high marks is Aaron Simon Gross as Archie, the hilariously compelling boy on crutches. And watch for Al Calderon who is a stitch as one of the local boys (Eddie). The part is a bit overripe but Elizabeth Egan Gillies shows off some mighty powerful pipes as the villainess Lucy. The entire cast, all thirteen of them teenagers, is impressive. Though he had much more to do than this, perhaps director Jeremy Sams' greatest achievement is, in fact, the crackerjack singing and acting of this youthful troupe. And Jason Robert Brown's greatest achievement will be that his tuneful and entertaining score will outlast whatever the fates have in store for this musical on Broadway.
Well, there's one Tony Award spoken for ...
We have three words you should not forget whenever you think of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull: Kristen Scott Thomas. She is a mesmerizing actress playing an even more mesmerizing fictional actress who must (and does) embody a turbulent swirl of emotions. Haughty, desperate, tender, cruel, the list goes on and Ms. Scott Thomas flashes them like lightning. The only actor who comes close to her on stage is the amazing Zoe Kazan as Masha. Two definitive performances in one show? Not bad.
One wishes, though, that some of the actors in this production were as stellar as those two. Peter Sarsgaard makes some interesting and different acting choices as Trigorin, but they lead him down an ultimately less engaging path. Most disappointing, though, is this production's Konstantin, Mackenzie Crook; he seems far too old to be Kristin Scott Thomas' son, so rather than seeming youthfully searching for his way in the world he comes across as more twisted than he should.
One more thing about The Seagull: now that we've seen Kristin Scott Thomas play the part of Arkadina to perfection, can we please get a moratorium on productions of this play?