If you want to catch one of the most highly polished middle school shows you'll probably ever see, check out the new musical "13," which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum. A collaboration between composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown, best known for his Tony-winning score for "Parade," and children's book author Dan Elish, this spirited theatrical offering is like an "Afterschool Special" staged with superlative artistry and verve.
I'm sorry, early adolescence isn't a phase you're eager to revisit? You'd rather not recall being the last to get picked in gym class or the pimples that fiendishly erupted just in time for your first date? Understood. But if you enjoyed a relatively benign puberty (don't rub it in) and you have little Shirley Temples at home dying to get out there and perform, this is the family outing you've been waiting for. The rest of us can meet at a little bar I know in Hollywood. The first round is on me.
Directed by Todd Graff, whose film "Camp" delved memorably into the misfit world of gung-ho musical theater youths, the production, hampered by a hackneyed book, features a mostly delightful teen cast that compensates for the work's obvious deficiencies. Some sing or dance better than they act, but all the performers work their special charms as though the audience were in control of the next increase in their allowance.
The execution is what distinguishes this otherwise generic tale about a likable Jewish kid who has moved from New York City to Appleton, Ind., a few weeks before his bar mitzvah. Angry at his mom for getting divorced and taking him away from all his friends back home, Evan (an attractively nebbishy Ricky Ashley) is determined to get all the cool kids to come to his celebration, though he's going to have to jump through a lot of hoops -- and learn the real lesson of becoming a man -- to get his wish.
One of those hoops involves Archie (Tyler Mann, sporting a mini mop of Art Garfunkel hair), a "special needs" student who relies on crutches to get around. He knows that Evan doesn't want him to attend -- it would be invitation suicide if the popular crowd found out he was going.
Alert to the danger, Archie threatens to show up anyway if Evan doesn't set him up on a date with the beauty queen, Kendra (a lithe and limber Emma Degerstedt), who has fallen hard for Brett (J.D. Phillips), the star of the football team.
What's peculiar about this is that Archie blithely announces early on that he has a "degenerative neuromuscular disorder." Later, he worries that Kendra won't want to be seen with him because of his respirator (who knew he was wearing one?). For a show with not much more realism than "The Brady Bunch," these details seem disturbingly out of place. The problem isn't simply that they're handled in a superficial manner. There's something a little disturbing about the way they're swept up in the apparently more pressing issue of the teenage pecking order.
Racism and other forms of bigotry are magically held in abeyance here. Prejudice is rampant, but only where it concerns physical attractiveness and the price of designer jeans. This is a high school world in which the blond bombshell can date the African American jock and only have to consider whether she should allow him to French kiss her. And it takes a cameo from Evan's rabbi to suggest that maybe it's not so easy being a Jew in this largely Christian Midwestern town.
The story whitewashes experience in order to reassure us that we all see ourselves as different at some point. Of course, the truth is that some people really are viewed as different, and in ways that can't be happily resolved in a peppy song-and-dance finale.
As Dickens revealed better than anyone, literature about children needn't be child's play. "Spring Awakening," the new Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical inspired by Frank Wedekind's classic play, is proving the case on Broadway at the moment. And a few notable movies about youngsters have been venturing into adult places in the last few years. Catherine Hardwicke's 2003 film "Thirteen" (no relation to this musical) dared to expose the darker side of the American teeny-bopper, while Alexander Payne's marvelous 1999 satire "Election" has more insight into the political mess we're in than all the Sunday talk shows combined.
Dramatically, "13" is a throwback to a friendlier and more deluded era, yet theatrically it's impressively contemporary. The production turns what could be a cliched scene at a movie theater into an antic bit of comedy in which members of the company act out the grisly bits from the horror flick that are causing the kids to squirm in their seats.
Brown's music, bubblegum rock performed by a live garage band perched on a platform above the action, serves mostly as a convenience for the plot-pushing lyrics. But to its credit, the canned guitar sound helps create the feeling of the pressurized cabin that Evan and his peers frenetically inhabit.