If the prospect of watching an all-teen company enact an all-teen musical accompanied by an all-teen band makes you cringe: Chill, dude, “13” is sheer bliss. The kids possess all the feisty energy of cats in a sack, as well as talent and rhythm that send them down the aisles and into the audience’s hearts. With a little fine-tuning and crossed fingers that the cast doesn’t age too quickly, this joyous, wholesome tuner could rival the appeal of the somewhat similar but less moving “High School Musical,” which made its debut as a stage property the same weekend.
Librettist Dan Elish’s simple narrative about middle-school outsiders tiptoeing their way through a minefield of cliques and gossip is the framework for a celebration of the kind of teen spirit that soars rather than smells.
In this Appleton, Ind., junior high there’s no drug use, hardcore sexuality, race prejudice or gay baiting, ground adequately covered in Catherine Hardwicke’s pic “Thirteen” and the grungy oeuvre of Larry Clark.
Here, everyone has only puppy love and popularity on their minds. Everything’s awesome or gross; biggest concerns are who’ll sit next to whom in the cafeteria or how to get into an R-rated movie. But that’s neither a cop-out nor a flaw. It’s actually pretty refreshing to have the everyday angst of the teen years taken so seriously.
If “13” leaves out the harsher realities of adolescence, the realities it does confront are resonant, nowhere more so than in Jason Robert Brown’s score. A less ambitious but no less tricky assignment than his Tony-winning “Parade,” songs remain true to the kids’ argot and emotional core while granting aud a Broadway sound that makes us tap our toes and cheer.
“It Can’t Be True” updates “The Telephone Hour” from “Bye Bye Birdie” into a malevolent Verizon rondelay, while “Angry Boy” takes us into the mind of a quarterback preoccupied with his lady love at third down. Both lyrics and staging comment as well as reveal: “Being a Geek” features a backup quartet of bespectacled nerds who turn, on a dime, into shades-sporting Vince Vaughns.
Central figure is recent Gotham transplant Evan (Ricky Ashley), the Jewish child of divorce facing the prospect of holding a friendless bar mitzvah. (It being Indiana, he needs to find a rabbi online.)
Evan confides in us as he walks a tightrope between the treacherous allure of the cool kids — the head cheerleader, the football star and their acolytes — and the warmth of his “weirdo” pals: brainy, judgmental Patrice (Sara Niemietz) and special-needs student Archie (Tyler Mann), shuffling through the halls on crutches, determined to be seen as just another kid.
In Mann’s lovely portrayal, Archie is no idealized sufferer. In fact he’s downright annoying: part Urkel, part Napoleon Dynamite, altogether needy. Not above using a little blackmail to wangle a date with the school princess (Emma Degerstedt), he opens his heart to her in a letter sung as “My Name Is Archie,” show’s emotional high point.
The lad also is dying, a fact communicated without bathos that nonetheless invests the “we’re all pals” finale with a delicate shading of grief.
Under the assured and witty direction of Todd Graff, who demonstrated his facility with young talent in the underappreciated indie musical “Camp,” ensemble is a model of naturalness and ease. The experience of professional kids’ schools, shared by most of the company, clearly hasn’t spoiled them.
Unlike the excruciatingly showbizzy moppets who helped to sink “Big: The Musical,” no one overplays it during a number. They show off as they would in real life: for each other, not for the viewer. As they effortlessly carry out every leap and twirl of Michele Lynch’s athletic choreography, each character seems to be thinking about recess, or what to order from the lunch line.
Graff’s and Lynch’s refusal to let their troupe get Fosse’d up is a major contributor to show’s appeal, as is David Gallo’s colorful set, with sliding panels and rotating periaktoi that instantly evoke the hallways and cafeteria that encompass the kids’ world.
Zachary Borovay’s projections make their mark as well, especially in a hilarious reenactment of the gorefest “Bloodmaster” that combines film and live-action on the upper level as the characters eat popcorn and cuddle below.
Lead Ashley is a charmer, but perf would be stronger if he and script accentuated the awkwardness and overeagerness that keep Evan on the outer edge of acceptance. Right now his arc really isn’t taking him from mouse to mensch because he’s pretty mature and largely complete to begin with. His final transformation needs to be something seen and felt, not just talked about.
Show also could benefit from a better balance between the musicians — literally a garage band on that upper tier behind a metal catwalk — and the onstage singers. Under sole grownup David O’s direction, the band is smokin’, no question, but individual lyrics are difficult to make out, especially in the opening number. Otherwise, show is in extraordinarily good shape.
Four or five years from now, alas, with their hormones raging and the uncomprehending adult world seemingly arrayed against them, Evan and his friends will despair and rebel and contemplate dying for love. In short, they’ll end up in “Spring Awakening.” But for now they’re “13,” and life is magical.