“Growing up is such a barbarous business, full of inconvenience – and pimples.” — J.M. Barrie
The premise for 13, THE MUSICAL is generic enough – a group of early adolescents coping with the everyday hassles of being bullied, establishing popularity, finding one’s self and so on. Such obstacles are thematic for many television shows, some movies and a few Broadway musicals. Growing up is tough. And, I guess, that’s what the creative team of Jason Robert Brown (music & lyrics) and Dan Elish and Robert Book (book) were thinking when they wrote 13, The Musical. However, I expect a bit more from a composer who has been hailed as “one of Broadway’s smartest and most sophisticated songwriters since Stephen Sondheim” (Philadelphia Inquirer).
Evan Goldman (Gianni Palmarini), a child of a soon-to-be failed marriage, is whisked by his mother from Manhattan to small town Appleton, Indiana. With his bar mitzvah approaching, all Evan wants is to make new friends, and regain normalcy in his life. As is usually the case, making new friends within the most popular clique is difficult while befriending the less popular is more readily accessible. Evan’s first new friend (and true soul mate), is the honorable but unpopular Patrice (Karalyn Joseph). Patrice, of course, is friends with Archie (Will Rotsch), the student who walks with crutches due to muscular dystrophy. But, Evan’s desire to be one of the cool kids requires maneuvering the social divide to join the collective that is football superstar Brett (Felipe Rocha), his “bros” Eddie (Wyatt McManus) and Malcolm (Jacob Tracey), the virginal cheerleader Kendra (Amanda DeFilippis), and ultimate mean girl Lucy (Lyndie Moe).
The all teen cast of the Wilmington Drama League’s production of 13 did the best they could with a book that lacks depth while bordering on out and out bad taste. I am of the mindset that theater can expand societal thinking. 13 fails miserably in that respect. One of the biggest laughs is based on an accidental guy-on-guy kiss. This is followed by one of the “kissing” characters to declare in a song that what is being said to him is, “a little gay.” Wanda Sykes and the folks from Think Before You Speak need to step up efforts on the “That’s So Gay” campaign. Much of the writing never brought me past a one-liner chuckle.
I remember my teen years all too well. As I watched the show, I never found myself reminiscing (fondly, horrifically or otherwise) about the tribulations of youth. The script for 13, being less than stellar, requires special attention from the actors and director to create more than just a songfest. The story itself tells of personal growth. I have confidence that all thirteen young actors I saw on stage have the ability to extend themselves, dig deeper for character and live the spoken word. As presented, I was entertained to a collection of songs with some (not so) funny bits. The often brutal effects of cliques, bullying, gossip, and even childhood illness, simmer on a backburner. The characters never emerge as genuine individuals.
There were two outstanding performances for me. Palmarini’s vocals are a delightful treat. The warmth, timbre and dexterity of this young musician engages completely. My hope is that he continues his studies on a more classical/crossover track rather than transforming into a musical theater screamer. Joseph portrays Patrice with sublime intuition; you feel her emotion. The cast includes many talented vocalists that, on occasion, wore on my ears from the American Idol driven belting and “souling out”. Also, I wished for more harmony singing. The few times harmony was sung, it was lovely (Bad, Bad News sung in Doo Wop style by Eddie, Malcolm, Simon and Richie).
Stage Director Nick D’Argenio’s utilization of simplistic set pieces on wagons (Pete Worth) and the occasional projection (Tony DelNegro) was effective and time-efficient but undervalued with bouts of inactive blocking. The lively choreography of Tommy Fisher-Klein kept the cast moving, grooving and smiling. The succinct, mostly electric six-piece pit led by Anthony Vitalo interpreted the score nicely.
13, THE MUSICAL is best enjoyed by teen theatergoers or those looking to hear young, local talent sing pop modern show tunes. For those wanting compelling, story-driving theater, you will need to wait for WDL’s production of RABBIT HOLE.
13, THE MUSICAL
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn
Directed by Nick D’Argenio
January 24 – February 2, 2014
Wilmington Drama League
10 Lea Boulevard
Wilmington, DE 19802