Monday, September 29, 2008

No, it is not based on the Holly Hunter movie

What happens when you want to write great musicals, but you also want to steal Wicked's audience and make money? Inevitably, you end up doing neither. I'm sure this is not a great shock to any of you out there.

A few weeks ago, Zack's dad asked me to recommend a show for all of us to see when he and his family visited us in New York. It is very very hard to try to pick a show that both Zack and his 13 year old sister (Nomi) would be willing to see. Nomi likes fun awesome musicals and Zack....doesn't. I looked ahead in the Broadway schedule and saw that 13 (the musical) would be in previews by this time. 13 is a new musical composed by Jason Robert Brown (one of my favorite composers and not a traditional "show tune" sound, so I figure Zack might not refuse to enter the theatre). When I take a look at the show info, I see that Brian MacDevitt (one of the only commercial lighting designers in New York that Zack respects) is designing it. We're in like flint, baby. Tickets are bought, dinner reservations are made and away we go.

13 is not based on the movie of the same name. When it opens, we see a typical New York teenage life (if you can believe the media hype) - a young Jewish kid on the Upper West Side, lots of kids running around on cell phones with shopping bags, skateboarding and drinking lattes. For the first five minutes, I wonder "Is this Gossip Girl: The Musical?"

But then our main character, Evan, moves to small town Indiana and we are smack dab in the middle of your typical after school special. Will Evan bend to peer pressure and be mean to his new best friend? How far will he go to be popular? And hey, what's really important, your friends or being "cool?"

And suddenly, I feel really old. I know this musical is aiming towards a younger crowd than me. But when did I become older than the target audience? As someone who watches Gossip Girl religiously and saw The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 in the theater, I do not feel like I'm above silly high school entertainment. But the lives and trials of eighth graders? This is a little much, even for me.

It doesn't help that the entire production smacks of a public school musical. The production values are high, but executed poorly. The entire cast is under the age of 18 - no parents, no teachers, just kids, kids, kids. I like kids. I like kids in theatre. I teach kids in theatre and have done so for the past 11 years. But a group of teenage kids are just not enough to carry a large scale Broadway musical. At least, these kids aren't. It's not their fault - it's the adults who cast them and lead them in this direction.

- a side rant - why do adults insist on giving kids shows where they have to act so damn earnest all the time? Kids aren't great at earnest - they don't really have the life experience to mine deep feelings and carry that across on stage. You know what kids are great at? Comedy! I swear. -

That being said, there are some genuinely enjoyable moments in this show. A song which I am calling "Hey Kendra" about a young boy (complete with backup singers) trying to ask out the cheerleader of his dreams is a great send up of "smooth" r&b classics. The jokes come a mile a minute and some of them land extremely well (one unfortunate girl can't land any of her makes me sad). And the kids are enthusiastic and there's a lot of cute dancing and clever staging.

To me, this whole show can be summed up in one line from the finale. Evan sings about how he needs "a little less pressure, and a little more time." Indeed. If this show did not have the pressure of a Broadway opening just one week away, it might get to relax, fix its problems and open quietly in a regional theatre somewhere (of course, it's done that - twice - maybe there's just no helping it). While I love Jason Robert Brown and all the songs he composes, this is not his best work. I don't know if this show will find an audience. I'd be surprised if it did.


AHR said...

This sounds like Merrily We Roll Along all over again...except worse. The problem there, supposedly, was a too-young cast, low stakes, and cheap staging. But at least Merrily had a spectacularly good Sondhiem score. JRB's music was the one thing that could have gotten me into this theater, but if it's not even his A-material, I'm skipping it.

Interesting point about kids on Broadway. Has there ever been a show with a mostly kid-cast that was funny? You know what I'd like to see - Spelling Bee with actual children!! Though I imagine you probably could see that at various Junior High's across the nation....or maybe just New York and California.

Mikochan said...

This sounds like the exact show I WOULD NOT WANT TO SEE. Here's my rant: I think that making kids belt to the ceiling and dance all cute so that adults can clap like they're circus puppets is pretty awful.

And what possible audience is going to want to see this? I feel like they are trying to bring High School Musical to the stage because it was Disney's cash cow. As I am working in several high schools right now, I feel that kids are much more varied than any after-school special has portrayed them. (I am in a feisty mood right now. Bring it on, Broadway.)

Becky said...

It's a little sad but it sort of feels like JRB has past his prime...which really sucks cause he's so young...well getting older...and I know he's frustrated with Broadway blah blah blah...but I hate to hear his talent is being wasted on anything other than something really interesting. He needs another Parade. :( But I'm so glad you saw it and wrote about it on your blog. What would I do without my NY theater reviewer!?

Meredith said...

Since I don't see enough theater, I'm not going to bother with this flacid tripe. Too bad- I also love JRB.

Chris said...

I think the show has possibilities - but it needs a lot of fixin'. It needs to focus the plot (maybe find a plot?) and chop a few songs. It seems too frenetically trying to make an impression by throwing a song at you every other minute. Lena has it right - relax, focus, find an honest voice.