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Jason Robert Brown's exuberant musical about the trials of adolescence is likely to score big with a young audience.

Tyler Mann, Ricky Ashley, and Sara Niemietz in 13
(© Craig Schwartz)
It's a pretty safe bet that any adult reading this review would rather speak in public before thousands of people while stark naked, under a spotlight, with live video feed coverage, than relive the horrors and humiliations that defined life at age 13. Feeling like a freak, wanting to fit in, and identity issues were the order of the day, not to mention pimples, mortifying nicknames, and the unrelenting peer pressure to be someone smarter/prettier/hipper/altogether better than who you actually are.

Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown and youth writer Dan Elish cover all this ground and more in 13, an exuberant anthem to overcoming the adversities of puberty all in 100 fast-paced minutes.

Rather than delve deep into the above-mentioned pitfalls, this world premiere musical comedy chooses to follow the path of least resistance (and short attention spans) by keeping a light frothy tone, an easy-to-digest plot, and the requisite happy ending. But that's okay! Not every production ever staged needs to show the dirt under its nails to prove it's scratched deep beneath the surface. Even though there's a certain amount of whitewashing going on -- there are barely minimal consequences for pranks pulled and mistakes made -- the necessary points about honesty and friendship still ring clear.

More importantly, when your target audience is a generation of boys and girls addicted to gadgets and isolating technology, anything that can get their young butts into theatre seats for a live entertainment experience is a step in the right direction. And this show, with an abundance of high-voltage energy, and actors their own ages singing and dancing up a storm to music played by a rockin' live band that's also made up of kids (although led by the grown-up, but eternally youthful band leader, David O.), is likely to do just that!

The show revolves around Evan (an engaging Ricky Ashley), who resents being uprooted from his home in New York City to move to Appleton, Indiana following his parent's divorce. Soon to turn 13 and be bar mitzvahed, Evan is desperate to be accepted by the cool kids at his new school so that the guest list for his party will include more than just his mother and her girlfriend.

Those '"cool kids" include the beautiful, multi-talented cheerleader Kendra (the lithe and lovely Emma Degerstedt), her best friend, gossipy Lucy (Caitlin Baunoch), and self-confident star athlete Brett (J.D. Phillips). Not included in the cool constellation are Evan's only real friend, Patrice (the wonderful Sara Niemietz), who is a resolutely independent spirit, and the nerdy Archie (an appealing Tyler Mann), an automatic outcast due to his crutches.

Now the games begin: Evan won't invite Patrice to his party because she's not cool, and he promptly sets about doing whatever it takes to get himself in with the in crowd. The first test means getting them all into an R-rated horror flick, which Evan manages to pull off (and it's one of the funniest sequences in the show). Meanwhile, Archie blackmails Evan into setting him up with his secret crush, Kendra, but Kendra really wants to be with her secret crush, Brett. Meanwhile Brett's big concern is his tongue technique and how and when to use it on Miss Popularity herself.

Director Todd Graff, best known for the film Camp, knows how to access teenage angst and make it palatable to a teen (and teen-sympathetic) audience. Moreover, although the show is professionally produced, it does not carry that slick veneer that screams skill but misses heart, and some of the cast's slightly rougher edges also keep an air of authenticity to the piece. The band is also a great touch; they even brought screams of surprised delight from the opening night audience when they were revealed. Better yet, they give full body to Brown's lively and observant score.

Being 13 may have sucked in real life, but that's one of the cool things about theater and seeing a familiar story on stage: no matter what happened back then, anything could happen now.


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