13 The Musical sees Jason Robert Brown at his most commercial. The score is bright and boppy, and it feels like a show young people should enjoy. It is not taxing in any way, sometimes it is very funny, and sometimes it strays into poignant observation. But, and it’s a big but, it deals in tropes and types and, deliberately or not, unwisely reinforces some sexist, homophobic, racist and antisemetic attitudes. In the end, it feels like bubble gum from a bygone era – a sweet curiosity which might be better wrapped up and stored rather than sampled. Despite that, the sheer infectious brio of the considerable talent on show in this production just about makes you forget all of the show’s problems. As well as giving cause for real hope for the musical theatre of the future.
Jason Robert Brown has a cult following, although not one which matches the following of Sondheim. He is capable of devastatingly powerful musical theatre (Parade, The Bridges Of Madison County) as well as crowdpleasers (The Last Five Years, Honeymoon In Vegas) and has a world wide reputation as a writing of pleasing yet idiosyncratic Cabaret songs. He captures the spirit of the books for his musical in the notes and tunes, always ensuring that the score is an emotional and tuneful match tonally.
13 The Musical fits very well into the crowdpleaser category. The score pops, and fizzes and bops. Beats are insistent and lend themselves to spirited choreography. Of course, there are ballads too, some touching, some just for mirth quota. At times it seems like a parade of solos punctuated by frenzied crowd scenes, but this is more about the structure and the delivery than Brown’s score.
The British Theatre Academy production of 13 The Musical, now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre, strikes me as a better production than the original 2008 Broadway production. There is a sweet, and warm, naturalism about the performances here, physically and vocally, which summons up the sense of puberty transition more acutely than the more polished – and colder – slick portrayals did there. Happily.
The story (from Dan Elish and Robert Horn) is trite and predictable, the kind of teen angst story to be found in any number of television sit-coms. Evan is turning 13, his Bar Mitzvah is looming and he is worrying about how perfect it will be. Disaster strikes when his mother relocates them from New York to Indiana and Evan has to face a new school, new peer pressures and the need to make new friends – plus the Bar Mitzvah.
Trying too hard to be cool and a part of the ‘in’ crowd, Evan tries to set up the school jock, Brett, with head cheerleader Kendra. He is forced to disinvite Patrice, his non-conformist neighbour, from his Bar Mitzvah to keep in with Brett and his supporters. The outspoken Archie tries to mend bridges for Evan with Patrice, but things go from bad to worse. A series of silly set-pieces – some of which turn on the selfish machinations of Brett fancier, Lucy – resolve into a world where Evan, Patrice and Archie find that their true friendship is more important and more likely to last than the facile associations with the cool kids at school.
Without the music, the book here would not stand up as a piece of theatre in its own right. It’s paper thin narrative holds too many unpalatable stereotypes and notions: young women shouldn’t be made to think that the school jock is their greatest option; it shouldn’t be the end of the world or especially funny if one boy accidentally kisses another; people with disabilities shouldn’t be mocked for them; the exterior is not more important than the interior; lies and betrayal are not the tools of good people. It’s true that some recognition of this occurs in Evan’s story, but in too many other ways unpleasant tones continue to resonate.
What makes this production work is its cast – and some quite clever design work. Tom Paris’ set and costume design evokes perfectly a cartoon sense of modern American teenage life. It seems clearly unreal, yet curiously real, at the same time. Edward Pagett’s lighting works well enough and he manages some clever tricks along the way. Andrew Johnson’s sound design is excellent but there were too many occasions when cues were missed and words or lines were missed.
Milo Panni is incredibly winning as Evan, and he successfully manages to convey the character’s neurotic undercurrents, his new environment uncertainty and all the other hormone-filled-Bar Mitzvah’s-coming tics that define him. He is a natural comic performer and his voice is true and sweet. Even when Evan is being vile, Panni makes him sympathetic.
Ethan Quinn threatens to steal the show as Archie. He is a vibrant and compelling performer, with an easy knack of gaining the confidence and empathy of the audience. His timing is excellent and he never overdoes it. He too has a pure vocal sound, one that will, no doubt, bloom and grow, as he does, over time.
Madeline Banbury is sweet and efficiently normal as Patrice, the girl with the most to offer Evan. Banbury does real justice to the demands of the score, with a voice that has agility, power and lyrical beauty. As Brett, Lewis Ledlie is a triumph of brawn, stupidity and testosterone. He mines the part for comedy and strikes gold. He too manages to sell the deeply unpleasant side of the character, and his voice is very impressive (particularly when he connects with his inner bass baritone Rabbi).
Isaberlla Pappas and Chloe Endean do some spirited, but patchy, work as Lucy and Kendra. Both are very aware of their physicality and use that well and both have powerful voices. More confidence will permit their character work to improve.
Where the production really bounces into happy life are the crowd scenes, where the full cast give life to a range of creative characters. Director and choreographer Ewan Jones has a sure touch with the large ensemble; routines are energetic and robustly inventive and the cast execute them with considerable vitality. Care has been taken to ensure smaller characters get time and attention and that pays off for the audience.
There are several casts playing the central roles over the course of the run, and on the strength of the opening night cast, all should be equal to the task. The audience went slightly hysterical at the end of the show, making so much noise in shouted appreciation that the work being done onstage could not be heard. That sort of reception doesn’t help the cast – let them do their best and then applaud them.
There is much that is inspiring about this production – mainly it bodes well for the future of a musical theatre industry built on learnt and practised skills.