Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 5, 2008
13 Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn. Directed by Jeremy Sams. Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. Set and costume design by David Farley. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Jon Weston. Arrangements and orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown. Cast: Al Calderon, Riley Costello, Eamon Foley, Caitlin Gann, Elizabeth Egan, Gillies Ariana Grande, Aaron Simon Gross, Malik Hammond, Henry Hodges, Joey La Varco, Mary Claire Miskell, Delaney Moro, Eric M. Nelsen, Liana Ortiz, Graham Phillips, Max Schneider, Corey J. Snide, Allie Trimm, Brynn Williams.
Okay, that’s not exactly fair to either the Disney hyper-phenomenon or last season’s well-intentioned but undernourished one-performance bomb. After all, High School Musical assembled a troupe of performers sufficiently talented for realizing its limited ambitions, and Glory Days fielded two memorable songs. 13 has neither.
What it has instead are Elish and Horn’s book filtering the relatively ground-shaking concerns of 12-year-olds (why don’t I have any friends?, how can I get that girl to like me?) through the vivacity of 40-year-old failed Jewish standup comics, and Brown’s score sounding like a typical Jason Robert Brown score trying not to sound like a typical Jason Robert Brown score. All this, as performed by what must be one of the least-accomplished collections of actors and musicians ever seen on Broadway, does not add up to theatrical exhilaration.
Not that director Jeremy Sams and choreographer Christopher Gattelli don’t try to maintain order. The production sweeps through its 90-minute running time with the glitz and easygoing energy of a well-oiled comic book, while Gattelli’s sympathetic, MTV Jr. dances suavely evoke youthful excitement without (directly) calling undue attention to the cast’s all-conquering greenness.
There’s no word yet on whether Brown also demanded the show’s wardrobe and running crews be below voting age - he somehow relented on the design team of David Farley (sets and costumes), Brian MacDevitt (lighting), and Jon Weston (sound), and their highly competent (if seldom inspired) work benefits from that maturity. But 13 still reeks of as much of gimmickry as it does inexperience. One can understand artists’ desires to appeal so directly to an emerging market, but don’t theatregoers of all ages deserve consummate Broadway professionalism?
Anyone who can afford a ticket is already well past this show’s target demographic. Adult men may well be able to relate to Evan (Graham Phillips), who’s transplanted from New York to Appleton, Indiana, just before his 13th birthday, throwing his plans for a roof-raising Bar Mitzvah into disarray. Grown-up women might remember having problems like those of Patrice (Allie Trimm), the unpopular girl for whom Evan becomes a rare friend and an even rarer first (and second) heartbreak. Even Archie (Aaron Simon Gross), suffering from a degenerative neuromuscular disorder and confined to crutches, may elicit sniffs of nostalgia from anyone who, physically or socially, spent their school years on the outside looking in.
Example one: Evan, fretting about his Bar Mitzvah, says, “For us it’s the one day everything in your life is supposed to be happy and perfect.” Patrice: “See, Catholics don’t have that day. It would go against everything we believe in.”
Examples two and three: Evan, chafing against life in Indiana: “There’s gotta be more to do around here.” Patrice: “The inbreeding takes up a lot of our time.” Not long after: “Come on. I’ll show you the hillside where everyone waits for the Resurrection.”
Example four, from Evan: “Everyone needs something from someone, that’s basic Jewish logic.”
Gags like these make it difficult to forgive the work’s other shortcomings, which in a musical about 12-year-olds that actually sounded like 12-year-olds might matter less. But a dopey plotline about the super-popular school bully Brett (Eric M. Nelson) who has a crush on Kendra (Delaney Moro), the same cheerleader Archie fancies, flounders when played out by such wisecracking kids. So does a rampantly advanced musical scene depicting a complex gossip network, which in its reckless contrapuntal construction would be more appropriate in a Fringe Festival musicalization of The Women.
Such scenes hint that 13 was intended like the Peanuts comic strip: young people reflecting their elders’ idiosyncrasies. But if the rest of the show makes moderately more sense when so viewed, the score does not. Brown is justly acclaimed for elaborate musical monologues (especially in his breakthrough revue, Songs for a New World) and searing scenes of emotional exploration (as in his Tony-winning score for Parade, in 1998). His work here, though, laden with obtusely simplistic lyrics and anything-for-a-thrill music, sounds desperately derivative, the gentle funk or bland pop strains of every tune beneath his audience but nevertheless beyond his cast.
Only Elizabeth Egan Gillies, as Kendra’s bitchy friend Lucy, evinces potential to become a first-class Brown interpreter à la Carolee Carmello or Andréa Burns: Her wickedly weighty belt and irrepressible attitude pierce through the bubble of artifice surrounding her and yank you to stiff-shouldered attention. As for the leads, Trimm’s innocence is noncommittally appealing, Gross’s anxiousness roughly suggests living on borrowed time, and the adenoidal, antic Phillips is, uh, convincingly Jewish. But their performances never vary in intensity, sensitivity, or color, making all three invigoratingly boring foci; and it seems as if all three crack every time they sing - and not because their voices are changing.
They are undoubtedly doing their best. But those who believe professional theatre, especially at Broadway ticket prices, should be less about their best than the best will not be taken by them or much else in 13. At least for the actors, their age is a defense: They’re still developing, as both people and artists. What excuse can Brown, Elish, and Horn give?