Because the new musical 13 features 13 characters played by teenagers, as well as an under-18 band, it might sound like little more than a gimmick. Luckily, the talented cast and musicians exceed expectations, bringing Jason Robert Brown's bouncy songs to exuberant life. While it isn't as racy as Spring Awakening or as girly as Legally Blonde or Wicked, 13 should appeal to those shows' young audiences. As for adults, some will admire the accomplished performances while others will dismiss it as kids' stuff.
No matter one's age, 13's story covers terrain that pretty much anyone can relate to: trying to fit in and find one's niche at a new school. Evan (Graham Phillips) has to leave New York City after his parents split up and finds himself in Appleton, Indiana. Since he's about to turn 13, Evan needs to make friends quickly so his Bar Mitzvah will be a success. The first friend he makes is Patrice (Allie Trimm), who turns out to be a social pariah. Evan temporarily drops her as a friend to win over the most popular boy in school, Brett (Eric M. Nelsen), and his buddies. The question is whether Evan can fit in with the cool crowd without becoming a complete jerk.
Although the plot isn't terribly original, Dan Elish and Robert Horn's book offers smart observations on adolescents' cliquish, often cruel behavior. Even the popular kids can lose friends if they step on the wrong toes. Innocent Kendra (Delaney Moro) learns this when she starts dating Brett. Her bossy "friend" Lucy-who would be right at home in the movie Mean Girls-wants Brett for herself, so the gloves come off. The other main characters are the clever Archie (Aaron Simon Gross), who has a degenerative disease and walks with crutches, and Brett's scene-stealing sidekicks Eddie (Al Calderon) and Malcom (Malik Hammond).
Choreographer Christopher Gattelli gives the cast a workout in several ensemble numbers, from the extended opening "13/Becoming a Man" to the high-energy finale "Brand New You." Along with the upbeat tunes, Brown mixes things up with ballads like "Tell Her," which is nicely sung by Phillips and Trimm. Phillips in particular has a sweet, clear voice and an unforced manner that one rarely finds in teenage actors. (Corey J. Snide plays Evan on Saturday nights.) The company is filled with strong voices, though there's a bit too much belting at the end of most songs. Some of the actors display crack comic timing, which may be a credit to director Jeremy Sams (who staged Noises Off on Broadway).
Since Americans can't get enough of talent shows, there ought to be an audience for a musical that showcases a teenage cast brimming with talent and unbridled enthusiasm. If fans talk up the show on Facebook and MySpace, 13 could be the latest youth-oriented musical to find a following.