Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn
Directed by Jeremy Sams
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, West 45th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

I had two immediate thoughts a few minutes into watching the new musical 13, which, as the title might suggest, is about being and turning 13, performed, as well, by a cast who are all either exactly 13 or close enough to pass with serious authenticity.

                  The first thought was related to the fact that while I have always admired the enormous talent of composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, I’ve had a harder time with his sensibility. I just looked up my review of his last, The Last Five Years, from five years ago, and found I’d written this of him: “Though the score is not precocious as was some of his previous work (he made his debut as a relatively young man, and the early songs tended toward dramatizing life-lessons that seemed to come from a callow perspective), and though he now writes with the authenticity of experience, the precocity has been replaced by the impression of a more matured ego.” And the thought was that this mix of ego and precociousness and more mature perspective makes him precisely the right cat to be writing about how life should be lived at an early age.

                  And the second thought was that he and his collaborators, co-librettists Dan Elish and Robert Horn, are going to make a silo-high pile of money.

                  For it doesn’t matter whether or not 13 can weather a mild critical reception, or survive long on Broadway at $100 a pop orchestra seats. What matters is, it’s about kids being kids, go through kid stuff in a way that validates all the concomitant trauma and mixed feelings, the issues are just serious enough to scratch the surface of profundity, the treatment is light-hearted and sitcom enough to be inoffensive to all but the most absurdly conservative guardians of youth (and even they would have to tap dance very hard to make a case), the score is hiply attractive and catchy—

                  —and when you put that all together in one stock-and-amateur package, buttressed by an album and possibly even a video, you have a musical that is going to be done in high schools throughout North America for at least the next decade, and longer still if its pop culture and technology references don’t become dated or can’t be updated. And frankly there’s no good reason why it can’t be adapted for local audiences around the world, to take place in England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany or anywhere being fond of musicals and having kids happen simultaneously. The issues are that universal.

                  The story’s about Evan (Graham Phillips) who, with his parents divorcing is, on the cusp of his bar mitzvah, yanked from his cool, hop home in NYC to live with his mother in Indiana. There he has to start over. Summer seems promising, as he makes friends with next door neighbor Patrice (Allie Trimm), but once school begins and he has to fit in with a new crowd, he has to weigh acceptance (symbolized by getting a full house for his bar mitzvah) against loyalty—because Patrice is considered the school freak. Well the female freak. The male freak is her other good friend, Archie (Aaron Simon Gross) a kid with a disease that has him forever gimping around on crutches. Throw in archetypes like the dorky, bullying class hunk (Eric M. Nelsen), the vapid hottie the hunk and the crip have a crush on (Delaney Moro) and the scheming vamp who wants the hunk for herself (Elizabeth Egan Gillies) and you have enough tween subplots to keep the game lively for its intermissionless 90 minutes.

                  Brown’s score is, again, attractive, as well as literate and just sophisticated enough not to be pandering, mostly operating in familiar pop tropes that lend themselves to musical theatre filtering; and the book by Elish and Horn is no more nor less special than, say, a marathon of three or four of the best Happy Days episodes ever—perhaps just a touch edgier of subject matter and a hair’s breadth more risky with language…but thus also just right to pass the muster of most any school board considering what “next year’s musical” might be.

                  Here on Broadway, prior to its stock and amateur killing—well, it’s anybody’s guess how well 13 will fare, and you can pretty much tell from what’s described above if you’ll have patience for it. The cast is game, energetic, appealing, competent and confident—and there are perhaps even a few potential stars. My prediction goes to Ms. Gillies as the vamp, whose stage persona belies a soul and at least the suggestion of worldliness beyond her years; and Mr. Gross as the handicapped kid, who strikes me as a still-formative combination of Corey Feldman and Robert Sean Leonard. Direction by Jeremy Sams, choreography by Christopher Gatelli, musical direction (Tom Kitt) and design: all as they should be. And all simple to replicate or emulate when the show is ready to license.

                  What I wonder is: Between 13 and Disney’s High School Musical, not to mention last season’s Wanda’s World, will a mercenary trend be started toward teen and tween musicals meant to exploit the market? I wish I could be all snooty about it, but the truth is, it’s not a horrible idea, provided the musicals don’t pander and condescend (which alas, of course, some of them would). The big question then would be: how many musicals of quality could the market bear before abuse and profligacy ruins it for everyone?

                  I fear we may just find out.

                  Stay tuned…

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