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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
When our California critic Ariana Mufson went to see the world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum she was pleasantly surprised to find that 13 managed to both embrace and defy this genre and that Brown's rock/pop beat had her and the audience smiling and clapping along. With the backing of marketers eager to attract the grandchildren of the older generation that has for so long kept theaters filled, this latest teen musical has now sung and danced its way from California to New York. The story and cast of characters is the same but the show has undergone its share of Broadway-conscious tweaking — with new songs, a new director and choreographer and a fresh crop of teen aged performers.
Since I'm considerably further removed from the tween years than composer Brown or our Los Angeles critic, I went to check out the show's Broadway incarnation accompanied by my grandson Jack, whose own Bar Mitzvah was recent enough for him to identify with Evan, the musical's hero who is on the cusp of age 13 and the event likened in the show to a "Jewish super bowl." Though born and raised in New York, Jack knows more about Indiana than I do, courtesy of frequent visits to his mom's home town, Ft.Wayne, Indiana (a huge metropolis compared to 13's teensy town of Appleton which seems to have been named to symbolize the once apt cliche, American as apple pie).
Jack and I both enjoyed the energetic and enormously likable teens on stage. Thanks to Jason Robert Brown's catchy songs in a variety of musical style and with smartly rhymed lyrics and Christopher Gatelli's peppy choreography, these Broadway newbies have plenty of opportunity to show off their indisputable singing and dancing talents. We also liked David Farley's cartoon-colored sets, especially when the Manhattan skyline literally collapsed before our eyes, metamorphosing into Appleton with its single story skyline. The book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn has a more homogenized, sugar-coated High School Musical flavor than more sophisticated young audience geared musicals like Spring Awakening and The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee, but the novelty of not having a single adult in sight, made us willing to overlook the plot weaknesses resulting from the absence of parents or teachers.
To set the scene: Evan Goldman (a self-assured, charming Graham Phillips— Corey J. Snide on Saturday evenings) is uprooted from his life as a popular upper west side Manhattan schoolby by his parents' divorce. Dad's romance with an airline hostess has mom seeking a new life in Indiana where her main connection seems to be a cousin—- no parents, siblings or cousins for Evan or a visible Jewish community for his soon-to-be Bar Mitzvah. Evan is hardly thrilled with his new home but he seems to think life in Appleton could work out if he could get his new school's popular kids to come to the post-synagogue party. Of course, his reasoning is all wrong and his learning the meaning of real friendship gives him a firmer foothold on the road to being a man, which is, of course. what the Bar Mitzvah ceremony is all about.
The story doesn't take the anxieties besetting this age group into another time and place as Spring Awakening does, nor is it as dark. Nobody dies and except for a lot of talk about something called " the tongue" (once upon a time known as French Kissing) there's nothing too risque to upset even the most conservative parents (No, this isn't a Disney show, but it's homogenized enough to pass). While the tongue business is likely to be too tame for the teens in the audience, and too boring for their elders, there is one quite funny scene when the ensemble is at a screening of an R-Rated slasher flick and an attempt at tonguing in the dark has a hilarious outcome.
If 13 proves to have sturdy enough legs to appeal to a wide enough age range to become a lucky Broadway marque number, it will be mainly because of Brown's fresh and bouncy score that includes solos, duets and ensemble song and dance standouts like " What It Means to Be A Friend", "Terminal Illness," "Bad Bad News" and "A Little More Homework." If I had to give you 13 other reasons for seeing the show, I'd probably just list the names of the 13-member cast — and I'd bold face and underline Aaron Simon Gross whose portrayal of the handicapped Archie is droll and endearing enough to deflect its bordering on bad taste and brings some needed character originality to the otherwise stereotypical jock, cheerleader, trouble maker lineup.
With the music and the performers lifting 13 several notches above this sort of overly familiar teen story, it's too bad that Elish and Horn haven't taken advantage of the Jewish coming of age tie-in to go a bit deeper into the cultural clash. Instead they've downplayed the special outsiderdom of a Jewish boy in what seems to be an almost 100% non-Jewish location. At the risk of taking this light entertainment too seriously, I couldn't help wondering about Evan's inevitable appearance in temple wearing a prayer shawl.
With no other Jewish kid in sight, is this temple in some other town? If Evan had any sense of Jewish identity, would he really be willing to turn his party into a totally "goyish " event? And, given the uplift aims, shouldn't there have been a lesson in tolerance for the non-Jewish kids? While there's nothing wrong with Eric Nelsen's performance of the popular jock Brett, he is so golden haired that his not very prominent but nevertheless out there anti-semitic putdowns can't help but remind one of more troublesome blonde Aryan types in history. Since temple services are open and if this were to have a really happy ending, would it have been asking too much to have Brett and the other kids show up and cover those blonde locks with yarmulkes?
But maybe I'm taking all this too seriously. It's supposed to be fun and to set your feet and not your mind in motion.