Anyway, I saddled down at the restaurant between shows, had a phenomenal fluke, accompanied by a lovely Riesling, and as I was waiting for my date pudding (which was well worth the wait), I began eagerly to anticipate my evening show, Jason Robert Brown's Broadway-bound 13.
For the uninitiated, 13 is a bit of a concept show: there are thirteen actors, all around aged thirteen, and the show concerns the social pressures and challenges of being thirteen years old. The band members are mostly teenagers, too, a point that the production staff emphasizes by placing the band prominently above the bleachers in the show's gymnasium setting.
The central conflict of the show involves Evan, a Jewish boy from New York City who gets transplanted to Indiana after his parents have split up, which provides librettists Dan Elish and Robert Horn the opportunity to provide a lot of condescending humor about the provinces. This should play well to all the parochial New Yorkers who think of Indiana as beneath them, but it wears a bit thin. (Example: the kids in the show attend Dan Quayle High School, and their football team is called the Quails. Groan.)
But overall, the book is sharp and funny, and more than matched in quality by Jason Robert Brown's ebullient score. (JRB was in attendance the night I saw the show, perhaps tuning up the show before its Broadway bow next season.) The opening number is a very ambitious -- and successfully so -- 15-minute extended sequence, which sets the tone for many such sequences throughout the piece. It made for quite a welcome change from the stop-and-sing amateurism of Happy Days. For a behind-the-scenes look at 13, and an a capella rendition of the title/opening number, check out this video on YouTube.
Among the many standout numbers are "Tell Her," which features a compelling use of dramatic irony, and "Bad Bad News," a charming crowd-pleaser of a song, with a sort of "Everybody Out to Have a Maid" structure to it. It provides a great chance to showcase some of the very talented supporting players.
Not all the songs work, though. The very title of "What it Means To Be a Friend" illustrates not only what's wrong with the song, but with the rest of the show as well. There's an overly earnest, after-school-special quality to much of the material, which undercuts the show's effectiveness. Overall, the creators, along with director Jeremy Sams, have crafted a very promising show, full of verisimilitude and credible emotion. But in its current form, 13 is by turns brilliant and prosaic. Sometimes the winces come from recognizing your distant self in the painful social negotiations of the characters. Other times the winces come from scenes that are preachy, ham-handed, or obvious.
But that can all be fixed. Slightly more problematic, and ultimately more difficult to surmount, is the central conceit of the show. The material is complex, funny, and emotionally rich. But the current cast isn't always up to the challenge of the material, prompting the question: Will any cast of 13 year olds have the acting and vocal chops to pull off this admittedly worthy show? The cast here assembled is a talented crew, but there's something missing in terms of the believability of the complex emotions on display, and some of them have significant intonation problems.
I'll be very interested to see what changes the creative staff make to the show before it opens in New York. There's no question that they've got the makings of a fantastic show on their hands. The question is whether they can burnish the brilliance while banishing the banality. (And that exceeds my alliteration quota for the week.)
UPDATE: According to Playbill.com, 13 will begin Broadway performances September 16th at the previously announced Jacobs Theater. This news comes from a casting notice, which also reveals that "all roles are currently available, as are understudies and future replacements." It makes me wonder which of the kids from the Goodspeed production will actually make it to Broadway. Some of them were really quite talented, but I can see how the producers might want to start afresh with some of the roles. To be continued.