[THEATER] "13" - Kids are Alright . . . . . . .
- The kids are alright, but the show
The new musical "13" is like an "Afterschool Special" staged with
superlative artistry and verve.
By Charles McNulty, Times Staff Writer
If you want to catch one of the most highly polished middle school
shows you'll probably ever see, check out the new musical "13," which
opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum. A collaboration between
composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown, best known for his Tony-
winning score for "Parade," and children's book author Dan Elish,
this spirited theatrical offering is like an "Afterschool Special"
staged with superlative artistry and verve.
I'm sorry, early adolescence isn't a phase you're eager to revisit?
You'd rather not recall being the last to get picked in gym class or
the pimples that fiendishly erupted just in time for your first date?
Understood. But if you enjoyed a relatively benign puberty (don't rub
it in) and you have little Shirley Temples at home dying to get out
there and perform, this is the family outing you've been waiting for.
The rest of us can meet at a little bar I know in Hollywood. The
first round is on me.
Directed by Todd Graff, whose film "Camp" delved memorably into the
misfit world of gung-ho musical theater youths, the production,
hampered by a hackneyed book, features a mostly delightful teen cast
that compensates for the work's obvious deficiencies. Some sing or
dance better than they act, but all the performers work their special
charms as though the audience were in control of the next increase in
The execution is what distinguishes this otherwise generic tale about
a likable Jewish kid who has moved from New York City to Appleton,
Ind., a few weeks before his bar mitzvah. Angry at his mom for
getting divorced and taking him away from all his friends back home,
Evan (an attractively nebbishy Ricky Ashley) is determined to get all
the cool kids to come to his celebration, though he's going to have
to jump through a lot of hoops and learn the real lesson of
becoming a man to get his wish.
One of those hoops involves Archie (Tyler Mann, sporting a mini mop
of Art Garfunkel hair), a "special needs" student who relies on
crutches to get around. He knows that Evan doesn't want him to
attend it would be invitation suicide if the popular crowd found
out he was going.
Alert to the danger, Archie threatens to show up anyway if Evan
doesn't set him up on a date with the beauty queen, Kendra (a lithe
and limber Emma Degerstedt), who has fallen hard for Brett (J.D.
Phillips), the star of the football team.
What's peculiar about this is that Archie blithely announces early on
that he has a "degenerative neuromuscular disorder." Later, he
worries that Kendra won't want to be seen with him because of his
respirator (who knew he was wearing one?). For a show with not much
more realism than "The Brady Bunch," these details seem disturbingly
out of place. The problem isn't simply that they're handled in a
superficial manner. There's something a little disturbing about the
way they're swept up in the apparently more pressing issue of the
teenage pecking order.
Racism and other forms of bigotry are magically held in abeyance
here. Prejudice is rampant, but only where it concerns physical
attractiveness and the price of designer jeans. This is a high school
world in which the blond bombshell can date the African American jock
and only have to consider whether she should allow him to French kiss
her. And it takes a cameo from Evan's rabbi to suggest that maybe
it's not so easy being a Jew in this largely Christian Midwestern
The story whitewashes experience in order to reassure us that we all
see ourselves as different at some point. Of course, the truth is
that some people really are viewed as different, and in ways that
can't be happily resolved in a peppy song-and-dance finale.
As Dickens revealed better than anyone, literature about children
needn't be child's play. "Spring Awakening," the new Duncan Sheik-
Steven Sater musical inspired by Frank Wedekind's classic play, is
proving the case on Broadway at the moment. And a few notable movies
about youngsters have been venturing into adult places in the last
few years. Catherine Hardwicke's 2003 film "Thirteen" (no relation to
this musical) dared to expose the darker side of the American teeny-
bopper, while Alexander Payne's marvelous 1999 satire "Election" has
more insight into the political mess we're in than all the Sunday
talk shows combined.
Dramatically, "13" is a throwback to a friendlier and more deluded
era, yet theatrically it's impressively contemporary. The production
turns what could be a clichéd scene at a movie theater into an antic
bit of comedy in which members of the company act out the grisly bits
from the horror flick that are causing the kids to squirm in their
Brown's music, bubblegum rock performed by a live garage band perched
on a platform above the action, serves mostly as a convenience for
the plot-pushing lyrics. But to its credit, the canned guitar sound
helps create the feeling of the pressurized cabin that Evan and his
peers frenetically inhabit.
Michele Lynch's vivacious choreography mixes street moves with more
Best of all, the action flows across the two-tiered stage designed by
David Gallo with an enchanting effortlessness.
"13" may not be an ideal fit for the Taper's audience (the Kirk
Douglas Theatre probably would have made more sense), but it's nice
to see so much care and attention lavished on the younger generation,
who in turn pull out all the stops to wow us.
Gold stars should be awarded to Sara Niemietz, who plays Evan's nerdy
friend with a natural manner and lovely singing voice, and
Degerstedt, who dances with a grace well beyond her years.
As for the star, Ashley holds the show together with an appeal that
occasionally brought to mind a pre-"Graduate" Dustin Hoffman.
Although his character's joyful bar mitzvah ending is all too
predictable, it couldn't have happened to a more affable guy.