In case anyone missed the lesson learned from “High School Musical” and its endlessly multiplying spawn, kids these days are quite comfortable watching their fictional counterparts burst into song to express their feelings. So the target audience for “13” should have no trouble identifying with the characters onstage as they tunefully reflect on friendship, crushes, popularity, acceptance and tongue action. There’s not much in this sweet all-adolescent tuner to engage anyone past puberty, but the other lesson of the Disney franchise is that a narrowly defined demographic is no barrier to success.
The question is whether that principle can apply on Broadway. Television and film don’t need to reach beyond their core audience to be a hit, and concert or legit ventures spun out of “HSM” or the Miley Cyrus phenomenon are virtually presold to an already rabid fanbase. But “13” is attempting to build a following from the ground up — with nary a Jonas Brother or Cheetah Girl in sight. Given that Broadway ducats are out of reach on most allowances, the show’s producers have their marketing work cut out for them.
That’s not to say “13” doesn’t have assets. While the storyline by children’s novelist Dan Elish and vet TV writer Robert Horn is a familiar fish-out-of-water tale populated by generics (geek, loser, gossip girl, beauty, jock, etc.), it has heart and charm. The kids in the age-appropriate cast are talented. And the score by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”), which nimbly straddles pop and musical theater idioms, is several notches above the standard processed pap for teen tuners.
Firmly entrenched within the cool crowd at his Upper West Side Manhattan junior high school, Evan (Graham Phillips) has the world at his feet until infidelity ruptures his parents’ marriage and Mom packs them off to live in Appleton, Ind., just as he’s about to turn 13. But the biggest adjustment problem facing Evan appears to be planning a blowout Bar Mitzvah in a nowhere town where he’s the lone Jew.
Opportunities for humor built around that cultural shift are largely ignored by Elish and Horn, though the traditional rites of the Bar Mitzvah — responsibility, maturity, ethical enlightenment — are reflected in Evan’s journey toward self-knowledge.
Soon after relocating, he sparks up a friendship with geeky neighbor Patrice (Allie Trimm). In a John Hughes universe, Patrice would be Molly Ringwald, but there’s nothing here to indicate why all the popular kids hate and ostracize her. Maybe her bad knitwear? The outsider status of disabled Archie (Aaron Simon Gross) is more obvious in the cruel world of teendom, even if this is a fairly toothless bunch.
The show’s big conflict revolves around Evan compromising his friendship with Patrice and Archie while sucking up to skater dude Brett (Eric M. Nelsen) and his vapid cheerleader girlfriend, Kendra (Delaney Moro), in order to lure the shallow party crowd to his Bar Mitzvah. Trouble surfaces out of Archie’s romantic designs on Kendra and from the duplicitous machinations of Lucy (Elizabeth Egan Gillies) to poison her BFF Kendra’s budding romance with Brett and win the jock for herself.
OMG, it’s all sooooo complicated. Much as it will seem a yawn to most adults, the scenario no doubt will connect with teens, who generally are more willing to attach life-or-death urgency to playground politics. And Evan’s lesson in values will resonate as loud and clear as the homework/growth metaphor.
The show can’t be accused of overreaching, but if the story had been told with more wit, complexity or universal insight, there might have been something here for the rest of us.
Led by Phillips with a balance of self-possession and youthful awkwardness, the cast is captivating in a quiet rather than ingratiating way. Humor comes primarily from Al Calderon and Malik Hammond as Brett’s wannabe-cool sidekicks (their “Bad Bad News” is a high point), and from Gross, whose disarming take on a kid living with a degenerative muscular disorder is refreshingly free from mawkishness. The potential to use Archie’s disability for sympathetic leverage is amusingly conveyed in “Terminal Illness.”
Brown’s melodic songs are well crafted and do the job of bumping the thin story along as they shift from energized teen anthems to ballads to comedy numbers. But the composer’s work tends to bounce around in tone and rhythm, making it difficult to sing for performers whose voices are still developing. At times the kids struggle to compete with the ornate pop orchestrations played by a six-piece band of under-18 musicians — led by sole grown-up Tom Kitt.
David Farley’s costumes are accurate approximations of teen style, but aside from a droll transition from the vivid colors and hard outlines of New York to the drabness of Indiana, his cartoon set designs are a little flat.
Director Jeremy Sams steers the action efficiently enough but seems to have less rapport with the kids than choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who successfully channels their awkward, barely coordinated exuberance into movement with an appealing unrefined edge. Letting them cut loose and go crazy more often, like in infectious curtain number “Brand New You,” might have given this cute but unprepossessing show more spark.