13 @ Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York

cast list
Al Calderon
Eamon Foley
Caitlin Gann
Elizabeth Egan Gillies
Ariana Grande
Aaron Simon Gross
Malik Hammond
Joey La Varco
Delaney Moro
Eric M. Nelsen
Graham Phillips
Allie Trimm
Brynn Williams

directed by
Jeremy Sams
OK, so it’s kind of like High School Musical, only the kids are actually talented and I didn’t squirm in my seat whenever they started to sing.

I’m talking about 13, the latest Jason Robert Brown-penned musical that opened this week at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in an attempt to bring the average age of performers currently on Broadway down – and I mean way down. The cast of (you guessed it) thirteen and a five-man band, has a cut-off age of eighteen, most making their buoyant Broadway debuts. It’s the first Broadway show ever to feature only child actors.

This novel concept makes up a large part of the show’s “wow factor.” And, despite their fresh-faced qualities (casting folks would call it “greenness”), the cast isn’t merely proficient. For the most part they’re downright lovable. Special props go to 13-year-old Allie Trimm whose hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark voice is one of the reasons to see this show.

From the exuberant opening number, the fast-moving pace of the show is set, Christopher Gattelli’s age-appropriate pop-and-lock choreography executed impeccably – and at breakneck speed – by these triple-threat tots. These kids should thank their lucky stars they were given a chance to be in a Broadway show at such a young age, and audience members should thank theirs that the kids are so damn good, particularly when the book is mostly a rehash of familiar material – sort of Grease meets High School Musical meets Falsettos.

The show opens with Evan Goldman, a 12-going-on-13-year-old, finding out, shortly before his birthday, that he’ll be relocating, due to his parents’ messy divorce, from the posh Upper East Side, where preteens sport Barneys shopping bags, to rural Appleton, Indiana (as Evan puts it, “Where UFOs go to refuel”).

This year isn’t just like any other for Evan; he’s about to have his bar mitzvah (“the Jewish Super Bowl”) and come into his manhood but not without the requisite anxiety over the guest list. At his new middle school, Evan’s gotten in with Patrice, the plain outcast girl, and her terminally ill crippled friend Archie, but his desire to fit in with the popular kids puts him at risk for losing the best of the bunch.

While the cool kids are on “tongue patrol,” policing the smooth moves of class heartthrob Brett, played by Eric M. Nelson complete with bleached emo coif, Evan’s busy making gaffe after gaffe in his struggle to get them all to come to his party. In the end, the typical after school special-style conclusion is reached, trumpeting the moral that your true friends are the only ones who really matter.

Book writers Dan Elish and Robert Horn don’t have many new ideas to exhibit here. They’ve taken a typical coming of age story and tweaked it to fit into the current High School Musical mold, with plenty of room for life lessons, some of which border on heavy-handedness. Jason Robert Brown’s buoyant score saves the show from slipping into a saccharine morass. Though he would have done well to adhere even closer to current pop music composition, there are a handful of gems here, particularly Patrice’s ballads The Lamest Place In The World and What It Means To Be A Friend as well as the curtain call rock-out number Brand New You.

Jeremy Sams’s energetic direction makes frequent reference to musical theatre idiom. Early on the kids get a Chicago-style moment with feathery fans during Archie’s song Get Me What I Need, and the finale, a rousing anthem to the fleeting nature of time, gives them a crack at a bit of inspirational line-up-across-the-stage-and-belt blocking. Sound familiar? Sets by David Farley allow for the landscape to shift effectively from the Benday dot-infused cityscapes of the early scenes in New York to bleak rural Indiana.

The show, which has been significantly pared down during previews, runs a brisk, lively 90 minutes without an intermission. If it were much longer, the energy level may have worn thin, but as it stands the show maintains its momentum throughout. Efforts have also been made to weed out some possibly offensive material (early previews featured the objectionable slur “fagmo”). Jokes about Archie’s terminal illness are still cringeworthy, but the off-color moments here mostly illicit groans rather than gasps. What’s a show about tweens without a few clunker jokes?

There’s plenty to praise about 13. Mostly, I was glad that it sidestepped any major main stem pitfalls. There aren’t any falling chandeliers here, for better or worse. Nor are there vampires – the most surefire recipe for a quick flop (take note, producers!). It’s just kids singing their hearts out. Profound? Nope. Fun? You bet.

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