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[THEATER] "13" - Kids are Alright . . . . . . .

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  • madchinaman
    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,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 10 1:28 PM
      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
      their allowance.

      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
      traditional razzle-dazzle.

      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.
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