Musical theater has long been an outlet for emotion. Angst, anger, frustration and love are all frequent subjects of musicals. However, they are not frequently approached from the perspective of teenagers. Jason Robert Brown’s new musical, 13, which is currently in performances at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, takes on that challenge, and the results are quite…interesting.
The show is narrated by Evan Goldman (Graham Phillips), a teenager who is suddenly uprooted from his New York lifestyle and moved to Appleton, Indiana, when his mother and father divorce. Shocked by his life’s sudden changes and bored in his new town, Evan is obsessed with his upcoming bar mitzvah and determined to ensure the attendance of all of the cool kids from school. He quickly befriends his next door neighbor Patrice, played by the lovely and remarkably poised Allie Trimm, who is not one of the cool kids, a fact that she proudly admits. Instead, Allie hangs out with Archie (Aaron Simon Gross) a refreshingly sarcastic physically disabled student who quickly enlists Evan to help him win the affection of Kendra, the head cheerleader (Delaney Moro). The problem is that Brett, the cool guy (played by Eric M. Nelsen) also has the hots for Kendra, and is planning on making the moves on her at a scary movie. Evan promptly establishes himself as an ambitious social climber, tricking Archie and Brett into both thinking they are going on a date with Kendra. His plan quickly backfires and he finds himself such an outcast that even the regular outcasts will not talk to him.
The show is straightforward and simple, with some rousing pop numbers (especially the opening one), and some refreshing moments of sarcasm that pepper the music. Brett’s two best friends also serve as backup singers when he approaches Kendra about going on a date, and it’s hard not to laugh when a pre-pubescent boy rocks out the riff, “I want to get up in your business.” Another highlight of the show is the barbershop quartet song, “Bad, Bad News,” espousing the woes of Lucy, the mean girl who has somehow leeched onto Brett as his girlfriend and is actually demanding that he change his Facebook status to say that he is “In A Relationship” with her.
Those moments of the show are refreshing and entertaining, but they are fairly sparse throughout the 90 minute performance, which at times feels weighted down by the dramatics of the middle school social hierarchy, which feels (thankfully) long ago and far away from this critic’s current life. It is amusing for a moment or two to remember how much work went into a kiss (especially one with tongue!), but a complete musical addressing the subject becomes tiresome quickly.
Thankfully, the slower moments of the show are carried by the cast, a remarkably talented group of adolescents. As Evan, Phillips is likeable, an average Joe who, like almost everyone else in high school, longs to be popular. The supporting cast is all quite talented, with Gross’ Archie providing some great sarcasm – and realism – to Evan’s overwrought antics. The true standout of the cast, however, is Trimm, who as a 13 year old Patrice seems to be smarter and more comfortable with herself than many of the 23 year-olds this critic knows. Inevitably, Evan realizes what is really important and learns to just be himself. The story is predictable, and has been done many times before on the Disney Channel, but it is still sweet.
13 will probably be quite entertaining to the teen and tween set of New York. Whether they would rather see this performance on Broadway, or simply watch their DVDs of High School Musical remains to be seen.
As the opening number ended, my companion, who is not a fan of musical theater, commented, saying, “This show combines musical theater and puberty. Those are two of my least favorite things.” Inevitably, the show causes the older members of the audience to fondly – or not so fondly – reminisce about the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. Whether the adults of the audience consider revisiting that aspect of their past to be amusing or torturous is up to them to decide.