A DAY OF OY VAY!
“13” AT MARK TAPER FORUM
What a bang-up way for the 2007 theatre season to begin! The world premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s“13” was a superb event indeed for Los Angeles, and the show is a good contender for future glory in those greener theatrical climes on our other coast. Hopefully, this auspicious beginning will be only the first stop in a upwardly mobile Drowsy Chaperone-y journey for this appealing new work, from its first burst onto the Mark Taper stage right up to Tony Award night in 2008.
Above everything that deserves praise here, there’s first and foremost the brightly infectious score by Brown, who seems to continuously make the bravest of professional choices for someone in his particular stage of flirtation with great fame and renown: he reinvents his work completely with each new chapter of his career evolution—and hey, that approach did wonders for Johnny Depp, right?
With a cast and band made up of some of the most talented teenagers you’ll ever see performing on one stage, “13” is the story of Evan (Ricky Ashley), a 13-year-old Jewish kid from New York City—after the traumatic separation of his parents—is transplanted to suburban Appleton, Indiana. Soon to have his bar mitzvah in this strange new environment with only his mother and the rented rabbi they found online as guaranteed attendees, Evan goes on a woebegone and challenging quest to get the cool kids he barely knows from his classes at Dan Quayle Junior High to show up and hear him read backwards.
Oddly, although Brown’s lyrics are as fresh and crisp and fascinating as his music, Dan Elish’s book for “13” at first seemed a little too Saved by the Bell, only buoyed for the first half hour or so by Brown’s score, Michele Lynch’s striking and whimsically youthful choreography, CTG’s always first class production values, and the incredibly potent and explosive talents of the 13 dazzling kids who energize the show. But Elish’s characters grow on you as they develop, as the writer craftily, stealthily segues from Ferris Bueller to Lanford Wilson. Evan wins friends, loses friends, recovers friends, and by the time he gives his heartfelt bar mitzvah speech, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Lynch, our town’s best musical director, David O, and director Todd Graff should be lauded for so deftly managing to corral and brilliantly pilot this amazing cast of potential child stars, graciously letting the kids’ talents be the primary focus of their efforts. Ashley is totally believable and sweetly endearing as Evan, as are Sara Neimietz as the traditional loyal plain girl he should be inviting to the party, Tyler Mann as the disabled neighbor who goes to all lengths of manipulation to get his way, and Emma Degerstedt as the maybe-not-so-bubbleheaded blonde cheerleader whose first tonguing everyone is obsessed on plotting.
Nope, the cast couldn’t be better chosen or guided, with Evan’s gangly still testosterone-challenged (give them a minute here, folks) posse of four—Ryan Ogburn, Ellington Ratliff, Christian Vandal, and especially the athletically unstoppable Seth Zibalese—offering some of the evening’s most impressive musical moments, and there also must be special mention made of O’s dynamic all-teen band, with the particularly impressive Chris Raymond wailing a knockout guitar solo.
It’s way early to predict what’s in store for LA theatre in 2007 since this is literally the first opening of the season, but if this bunch of gifted munchkins doesn’t win honors as the ensemble cast of the year by award time a year from now, I’ll eat my presskit. And that goes double for Jason Robert Brown’s innovative, charming, and most hum-able score. If the rest of 2007 ends up as exciting as “13,” we’re off to a remarkable start.
The Mark Taper Forum is located at 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call (213) 628-2772.