One thing I’ve learned on the job is this: The shows I dread the most often turn out to be among the best.
“13” is a one-act musical by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown and book-writers Dan Elish and Robert Horn. It’s about tween angst and is designed to be performed by real tweens and teenagers. The very idea of such a show was enough to make your jaded theater critic want to run as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
But “13” turns out to be a delightful 90 minutes-plus at the theater. It’s funny, acerbic and droll. Neither Brown’s lyrics nor the dialogue shy away from the nightmarish psychic traumas of adolescence, but the material is handled with finesse and a wicked sense of humor.
The Spinning Tree Theatre production, co-directed by Michael Grayman and Andrew Parkhust with choreography by Kenny Personett, is crisply staged, inventive and heartfelt. Brown’s music is infectious, and his lyrics are consistently clever.
The storyline is about Evan (Fisher Stewart), a Jewish kid from New York who, after his parents divorce, finds himself in the cultural wasteland of Appleton, Ind. This means, among other things, that he won’t be able to have his bar mitzvah in New York. And in order to be “popular,” he knows the social event of his young life must be well-attended.
Right away Evan finds himself immersed in tween politics. He befriends Patrice (Allison Banks), a nice girl who happens to be singularly unpopular. He, in turn, is befriended by Archie (Joshua L. Holloway), a kid with muscular dystrophy who hobbles around on crutches and turns out to be even less popular than Patrice.
Evan feels compelled to curry favor with Brett (Jared Berlin), a popular, dim-witted jock, but his efforts to assist Brett in his romantic desire to be with Kendra (Libby Terril) go wrong. There are additional complications, thanks to the Machiavellian manipulations of the predatory Lucy (Devyn Trondson).
Most of these performers are making their professional debuts, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Fisher handles the central role of Evan with confidence and poise. Banks demonstrates an impressive singing voice and a straightforward performing style. And Holloway reveals an impeccable sense of comic timing as Archie.
Berlin is very funny as the thick-headed Brett. So is Trondson as the constantly scheming Lucy. Terril finds a way to make Kendra both appealing and dense.
The principals are backed up by a talented ensemble and a four-piece band led by musical director Gary Green.
Much of the humor is utterly cynical. But after 90 minutes of adolescent cruelty, the feel-good final number achieves genuine poignancy. These texting and cellphoning characters are immersed in their present. But adult viewers can’t help but reflect on their own adolescent years and know that they, too, were as desperate to be “popular” as the characters in this show.