When I was 13, my sister was 9, and my parents were not quite ready to leave me in charge of the house when they went out. It must have had something to do with that time I poured beer over her head. So, in the time-honored tradition of familiae suburbius, they engaged the services of the older children of their friends – a kid named Jason who was only a couple of years older than I. Many of my other babysitters grew up to respectable careers – lawyers, accountants, etc. Growing up on the mean streets of Rockland County, NY, if you made one wrong step you’d find yourself in law school or with an MBA. In my case, the refrain became the thinly veiled (or sometimes bluntly accusatory) “Why don’t YOU get a REAL job.
It’s too tough to make it as a [insert unrealistic artistically-inclined pursuit here].”
So it was a little vindicating for my fellow outcasts and I when my babysitter Jason grew up to become the Tony-Award winning composer Jason Robert Brown.
Jason’s got a new show which just opened at the Mark Taper Forum, called 13. It’s about a group of 13-year olds and the stresses and strains of that age. It’s no relation to the movie Thirteen from a couple of years back. It’s also no relation to the movie High School Musical, although it doubtlessly will be sold to the same audience.
I went to see the show last weekend – Jason said it was OK for me to stay up past my bedtime, as long as I don’t tell my parents. It was a whole lot of fun. I’ll admit that when I read the synopsis, I was a little wary. Thirteen year olds! Singing! Dancing! Trying to be cool! Or worse, embroiled in BIG! SERIOUS! PROBLEMS! So I was pleasantly surprised to find that the show is engaging, funny and heartfelt, without being saccharine or cutesy. If anything, the dominant image for me was one of ritual. Not only is the main character dealing with the onset of his bar mitzvah in a white-bread Indiana town, but many of the other hurdles feel like important rites and markers in the lives of the young characters, without being too self-aware or driving over the top into melodrama. The lead performers were all excellent, especially Tyler Mann as Archie, the “crippled kid.” It would have been to make him merely a noble sufferer, but they’ve created someone more shaded, one who is by turns endearing and off-putting, and not someone to be pitied, even as we see him try to manipulate others using pity.
There’s also a nicely staged scene at a movie theater, where the action and music concern the deployment of one main character’s tongue. All in all, a fun show with a poignancy that it earns, not one that is pushed down your throat. I think it’ll have a good life ahead of it.