nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 8, 2008
I remember reading, when I was a kid, a parody of children's TV in (I think) MAD Magazine. The spoof included a Tom & Jerry-like cartoon, after which a little girl explained what she'd learned from it: that mice are sweet and good and cats are stupid and evil and when she got home she was going to poison her mother's cat and throw out all the mousetraps...something along those lines, anyway.
Children, we know, are so impressionable.
Which brings me to 13, the new Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Dan Elish & Robert Horn (book), and the most insidiously offensive show to hit the Great White Way since Legally Blonde. Here's some of what the kids in the audience can learn from 13:
- Girls are either geeks or sluts, and they all lie and gossip (this is the premise of a song called "It Can't Be True")
- Disabled ("special needs") people use their illnesses to manipulate others for personal gain ("Get Me What I Need")
- "Gay" is a pejorative adjective; two males kissing each other is just gross ("Getting Ready")
- Indiana is a desolate wasteland where people have no cultural or intellectual pursuits but instead sit around waiting for the Rapture ("The Lamest Place in the World")
- The solemn Jewish ceremony of Bar Mitzvah is actually only an occasion for a big party ("13/Becoming a Man") and does not require the young man in question to have to study or do anything special (the whole show)
The plot centers around Evan, a Jewish boy nearing his 13th birthday whose life is transformed when his father runs off with a stewardess (their word, not mine) and his mother moves him from their privileged Upper West Side NYC life to a modest house in Appleton, Indiana. Evan's only priority is to make sure that a lot of people come to his Bar Mitzvah, and so he works hard to get in with the so-called cool kids at his new school, who are led by Brett, who is a suburban American cross between Vinnie Barbarino and the Fonz (though lacking their interesting ethnic qualities). Evan's obsession with being Brett's pal leads him on a variety of ridiculous adventures, such as arranging dates for both Brett and the school cripple Archie (again—their word, not mine) with the same girl, a vacuous airhead named Kendra. Eventually Evan discovers that "coolness" comes from our actions rather than our associations...or something like that...and a happy ending ensues.
The illogic of Elish & Horn's plot boggles the mind. Why does the most popular boy in school need help with dating? Why is a small town in Indiana the only place where a presumably healthy and capable New Yorker can raise her son? Why doesn't Evan get to know some of the other Jews (who presumably attend the synagogue where his Indiana Bar Mitzvah will be held), and maybe try to get popular with them?
13, though, is about surface, not sense; I think I dislike it even more for its cynical exploitation of youngsters than I do for its rotten values and messages. The gimmick of this show is that all of its onstage participants (actors and band) are teenagers themselves, and even though just about all of the performers really look too old to pass for 13-year-olds, it still feels creepy to realize that these children are forgoing school attendance and other normal pastimes to make money for the 13 (honest!) named producers who are behind this show.
I don't know; I guess I actually prefer to spend my time in the company of adults. I certainly missed their presence here; some maturity in terms of character and even voice would really lend some needed depth and variety to 13, which, lacking any grown-up characters, feels dangerously like a co-ed, middle American Lord of the Flies. We should be proud that most American kids don't have to make their way in the world without parents, not pretending otherwise and trying to glamorize the notion to boot.