Review - 13: The Tired Businessman Musical for Middle-Schoolers
While riding the uptown Broadway local train from Times Square around 1am on Saturday night after enjoying post-A Man For All Seasons cocktails with my Tudor-geek friend who vigorously detailed all the play's historical inaccuracies for me (more on that one later in the week) I found myself in a car nearby a group of adolescents having a loud and just as vigorous discussion about how all boys were dogs.
Five or six girls, looking around 14 to 16 years old, were verbally ganging up on one fella on the subject of fidelity, insisting that even if a demure young lass (my words, not theirs) forced a certain part of her anatomy into a fortunate lad's hand, any reaction on his part other than immediate withdrawal would constitute cheating. The guy put up a valiant fight, at one point even countering with, "I don't own my girlfriend. She's not my property. She can do what she wants," but as I made my exit the last argument I heard was that of a determined young female demanding, "If it's got legs and a vagina any boy is gonna be on it!"
If I had the money I would have gotten them all tickets to see 13, which I had just caught on Thursday night, and told them to go have a ball. (Of course, if I had the money to do that I wouldn't be riding the 1 train at one in the morning but that's beside the point.)
See, 13 is a musical comedy about the two most basic urges that dominate the lives of adolescents; the need to be popular and the need to satisfy newly-discovered sexual urges. And as we all know, the former is simply an avenue to the latter. But unlike the artsy-fartsy look at the sensitivity and purple-summerness of teenage sexuality playing over at the O'Neill, 13 doesn't mind being a little crass, offensive and immature. Cause, ya know, it's about 13-year-olds! This is not a special musical for families to enjoy together and inspire cherished dinner table conversations where kids can feel comfortable talking to their parents about the confusion they feel during this miraculous time of their lives. No, this is a musical for parents to drop their kids off at, pick them up when it's over and never, ever ask them about what they saw.
At the risk of making a very icky comparison, 13 comes very close to being a middle-school version of what they used to call the "tired businessman" musicals; Broadway productions with titles now known only to musical theatre aficionados and fans of [title of show]. The producers of How Now, Dow Jones, Let It Ride!, I Had A Ball and the like were probably aware they weren't advancing the musical play as a vital American art form, but instead were mounting diversions for the suburban commuter working late in the city who, instead of catching the 7:43 back home to the wife and kids, might enjoy spending a harmless, mildly titillating evening watching some pretty girls, hearing some good jokes and enjoying a plot where some average guy makes good, maybe even scoring with a chick way out of his league.
Add a dash of legitimate sincerity and you've got 13, a funny, tuneful and energetic musical comedy where you can laugh at what you are, chuckle at what you used to be or be horrified at what your babies have become.Meet Evan (Graham Phillips, with Corey J. Snide filling in Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons), a Jewish New York kid adapting to puberty with the requisite amount of confusion ("I've got hair growing in places I didn't know were places!") who must move with his mom from New York to goyum-infested rural Indiana after his parents divorce. During the last weeks of summer he makes friends with new neighbor Patrice (Allie Trimm) who, in song, calls her town the lamest place in the world and makes jokes about local inbreeding and religious fanaticism. ("I'll show you the hillside where everyone waits for the resurrection.")
Once the new semester begins at Dan Quayle Jr. High, Evan wants to get in with the cool kids by inviting them to his bar mitzvah ("The Jewish Super Bowl"), but the head cool kid, dumb blonde jock Brett (Eric M. Nelson) proclaims that none of his denizens will attend if geeky Patrice is coming. So Evan tries to get Brett to change his mind by giving him advice on how to get a long desired tongue kiss from dumb blonde cheerleader Kendra (Delaney Moro). Complicating matters is that Evan's new friend Archie (Aaron Simon Gross), who is muscularly degenerative and on crutches, also desires a shot at the lovely airhead ("Miracles can happen with just the right combination of praying and stalking.") and that Kendra's shrewish friend Lucy (Elizabeth Egan Gillies) wants to nab Brett for herself.
But despite the fact that, yes, Evan does learn a valuable lesson about friendship in the end, bookwriters Dan Elish and Robert Horn and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown keep the jokes coming at a borscht belt pace. And despite preview buzz that the show was filled with instances where mean kids made offensive remarks about Jews, gay people and the physically challenged, numerous revisions left none of that remaining by Thursday night. The conflict here has little to do with religion or physical capabilities and is pretty much between the smart, clever kids and the stupid ones. Guess which group gets the choicest picks from Brown's catchy, clever and, at select moments, heartfelt score. There's a hard driving rock opening that pulses with growth spurting energy while establishing the musical's sense of fun ("I want a dirt bike." /"I want to kill my mom." / "I want a moustache." / "I want a Wonderbra."), a fabulously distasteful vaudeville turn for Evan and Archie about the power of pity ("No one says no to a kid with a terminal illness.") and, while the ballad "Tell Her" has its funny moments in context, it's also got the right amount of simple honesty about liking a girl. But the meanies do get a genuine show-stopper when Brett's junior henchmen (Malik Hammond and Al Calderon) smoothly deliver the mock blues, "Bad Bad News." (Joey LaVarco and Eamon Foley eventually join in on the fun.)I couldn't say for certain if Brown's desire for his orchestrations to be played by a six piece band made up entirely of teenagers (save for music director Tom Kitt) added a special sound to the proceedings, but it sure enhanced the visuals during moments when the cast danced in front of the on-stage musicians.
Jeremy Sams' direction is spot-on in that he never allows the brisk, ninety-minute evening to nosedive into cute. The very talented, all teenage cast shows off strong musical theatre voices and good comic chops while always coming off realistically as kids, even when launching into Christopher Gattelli's revved-up choreography.
On second thought, maybe parents should accompany their young teenagers to 13 and talk with them about it at the dinner table. After all, why should kids be the only ones enjoying what is by far the best family musical on Broadway?
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Graham Phillips and Allie Trimm; Center: Delaney Moro and Elizabeth Egan Gillies; Bottom: Malik Hammond, Eric M. Nelsen and Al Calderon