Saturday, November 22, 2008


Gratuitous Violins rating *** out of ****

I've never experienced a situation exactly like Evan Goldman's in the Broadway musical 13, where I've been just about the only Jewish person in town, although I think I came close once. Still, whether they're Jewish or not, most people can probably recall a time in their lives when they've felt out of place, but desperately wanted to fit in.

So while I'm long past the age demographic, I really enjoyed this story of a gefilte fish out of water as Evan, played by a very appealing Graham Phillips, moves with his mother from New York City to small-town Appleton, Ind., after his parents get divorced.

Exiled from the Promised Land of Manhattan, all Evan wants is for the cool kids at Dan Quayle Junior High to come to his bar mitzvah. This won't be an easy task because judging from their reactions, none of them has ever been to one or even heard of the ceremony. (In fact, it makes me wonder whether there are enough Jews in this town so that there would even be a synagogue where Evan could have his bar mitzvah.) He tries to sell it as a really great party.

Initially, I was a bit concerned that in portraying this culture clash, 13 pokes fun at small-town America. David Farley's backdrop certainly makes this Indiana town look pretty desolate, especially in comparison with the colorful opening cityscape of New York.

But this is an endearing, good-natured show. And the characters are such stock types - the bully, his sidekicks, the cheerleader, the schemer, the gossip, the outsider - that I don't think you could take offense. They're pretty recognizable, no matter where you go to school - or when. And under the direction of Jeremy Sams, it all moves along at a brisk pace.

When I saw 13 on a Friday night in the orchestra section at the Jacobs Theatre, filled with teens and their families, everyone - including me - seemed to be loving it. It was announced yesterday that the show is closing on Jan. 4. I wish it had found a bigger audience.

Some of the most highly touted musical comedies I've seen lately have fallen a little flat. On more than one occasion, I've sat in the audience and wondered why everyone around me was laughing so hysterically. This time, I laughed at all the jokes, including at all the Jewish references. Ok, especially those. Sure, some of them were a bit silly, but everyone likes to see themselves represented on stage.

Plus, 13 features a very catchy rock 'n' roll score by Jason Robert Brown, and exuberant choreography by Christopher Gattelli, especially in the opening number, "13/Becoming a Man." At the performance I saw, Ariana Grande was Patrice, the unpopular girl who befriends Evan. Grande has a big voice that just soars in the stirring ballad, "What It Means to Be a Friend."

Of course, the conceit of 13 is that everyone on stage - the actors and musicians - are all teenagers. The kids, with their energy and enthusiasm, do a terrific job of carrying the musical. They're funny and cute and engaging. Since I'm not 13 years old, I probably felt the humor more than the sense of awkwardness and anxiety that comes with being a teenager.

I especially liked Eric Nelsen, who has just the right amount of menace as Brett, the school bully, Delaney Moro as the sought-after Kendra, Aaron Simon Gross as the disabled Archie, who's never an object of pity but schemes with the best of them, and Elizabeth Egan Gillies as the manipulative Lucy.

Like the characters, the book, by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, treads familiar ground with its message about the importance of figuring out who your real friends are, not just hanging with the popular crowd because that's the cool thing to do.

Still, there was one scene that I found surprising - and moving. At the end, we see Evan during his bar mitzvah, a yarmulke on his head and a prayer shawl draped around his shoulders, chanting in Hebrew. The show could have left that part out, soft-pedaled the religious angle, but it didn't - to its credit.

I'll admit that after reading some of the opening-night reviews, I'd lowered my expectations. But I was really pleasantly surprised by this little mensch of a musical.


Vance said...

I just went to see it last night and forgot how much I loved it and loved the energy from the kids! They streamlined the story a LOT and left out a LOT of jokes and Jewishness from the longer Goodspeed version but I think while I missed a few things, it worked better now as a faster story. (Though I still preferred the way it opened at Goodspeed with a LONG "Thirteen" intro that is broken apart in the Broadway version) and I liked the sets WAY more at Goodspeed.

Still, I'm kinda sad its going to close on Broadway now. I deserves better.

Esther said...

Wow, there was even more Jewishness in the Goodspeed version?! That seems hard to believe. I really loved it, too, and I agree that it deserved better. Maybe it's because I saw it after Equus and Black Watch, but I needed something light and fun and this definitely fit the bill. You're so right about the energy. I think it's probably the perfect length now. It zips along, really keeps you engaged for the 90 minutes.