Theater Reviews

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Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Through Feb. 18


It's like a musical version of "The Karate Kid" without the karate and Mr. Miyagi. It's the world premiere of "13," in which a host of talented 13- and 14-year-olds run, jump, dance, sing and emote nonstop for 90 minutes before an audience of squealing kids and adults happy to laugh at something besides their own foibles.

The story is a familiar one: Ethnically challenged teenager Evan, from New York, moves with his single mom to the sticks in Appleton, Ind., where he tries to fit in with the gang at Dan Quayle Junior High ("Where you don't get any points for being different"). The main players in this trifling little melodrama are Evan, two popular girls (one clueless, one manipulative), one formerly popular girl, the top jock and his two pals, and a flamboyantly dysfunctional outsider with a muscular disorder (Archie) known as "the cripple" to his unthinking mates.

There are a number of running jokes: Evan has to study for his bar mitzvah with an online rabbi. Brett is obsessed with French kisses. Malcolm has a toilet joke nickname. Lucy is, er, a witch. All very sitcomish and on the verge of being terminally cute.

Given the limited parameters and aspirations of what is a highly professional commercial product -- it is definitely more a scaled-down version of a stock Broadway musical than a genuinely insightful look at the growing pains of young teens -- the cast does a reasonable job. Occasionally, the singing of the earnestly tuneful but ultimately forgettable songs is off-key, but the execution of Michele Lynch's athletic, pop culture-aware choreography is not only well disciplined but also is infectiously energetic. It is definitely an effective showcase for a musical that could be mounted by a variety of professional and nonprofessional companies.

The standouts are Caitlin Baunoch (the manipulative girl), who has a dynamite voice and the dreamy kind of stage presence you've probably got to be born with; Sara Niemietz as the formerly popular girl who has genuine warmth and the beginnings of an attractive vocal style; Tyler Mann as Archie, who has the guts to stand up and be relentlessly obnoxious; and Seth Zibalese as one of the jock's pals, who nearly steals the show with his shining, dynamic charisma. Ricky Ashley's Evan, Emma Degerstedt's clueless blonde and J.D. Phillips' jock are more conventional, though it's hard to believe that Degerstedt, who also throws in a few impressive balletic leaps, is only 14.

Because the Center Theatre Group's artistic director Michael Ritchie, Tony-winning Jason Robert Brown and director Todd Graff all contribute brief notes in the program book about what it's like to be/have been 13 (along with a brief essay on being a 13-year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy by writer J.T. Murphy), they must be concerned that the audience will not "get it."

There are two additional world premiere musicals to come from the Center Theatre Group this season, one by David Mamet and one a co-production with Deaf West Theatre. Things might or might not improve, but at least the ambition will be more in line with the venue.

13
Presented by the Center Theatre Group
Credits:
Music-lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Book: Dan Elish
Director: Todd Graff
Choreographer: Michele Lynch
Producer: Bob Boyett
Set designer: David Gallo
Costume designer: Candice Cain
Lighting designer: Mike Baldassari
Music director: David O
Band director: Craig Wolynez
Casting: Erika Sellin, Jen Rudin Pearson
Production stage manager: William Coiner
Cast:
Evan: Ricky Ashley
Lucy: Caitlin Baunoch
Kendra: Emma Degerstedt
Archie: Tyler Mann
Patrice: Sara Niemietz
Richie: Ryan Ogburn
Brett: J.D. Phillips
Eddie: Christian Vandal
Malcolm: Seth Zibalese
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