Cadogan Hall, London
The British Theatre Academy has a constantly growing reputation as being an exceptionally fine, commendably diverse, training and play ground for budding young performers, as evidenced by the acclaim for their recent residences at Southwark Playhouse (Once On This Island, Bring It On!), and the fact that alumni include Dear Evan Hansen’s Sam Tutty. This is their second production of this punchily enjoyable Broadway musical – the first was part of their 2017 season at the West End’s Ambassadors Theatre, but with a different creative team – and it proves a frequently uplifting 90 minutes.
13 is an unusual proposition for a number of reasons: for starters, this tale of a Manhattan Jewish kid supplanted to rural Indiana and struggling to make friends when his parents’ marriage fails, features not a single character over the age of 13, and furthermore the creatives specified at the outset (the show was first seen in New York in 2008 with an original cast that included a pre-superstardom Ariane Grande) that it can only be performed by an age appropriate company. So, no adults pretending to be kids à la Blood Brothers or the various American musical distillations of the Peanuts cartoons. Also, to be fair, very little of the angst of Spring Awakening either. Personally I love that angst, but that’s not what 13 is about.
The other anomalous thing about 13, at least to musical theatre geeks, is that the catchy score, covering everything from bops to soft rock to a mild but unexpected flirtation with reggae at one point, is the work of Jason Robert Brown. Yes he of the majestic grandeur of Parade, the sharply observed urbanity of The Last 5 Years, the edgy but witty heartbreak of Songs For A New World and the full blown romanticism of The Bridges Of Madison County. True, his ear for pastiche has always rivalled Sondheim’s, as does his sharp, ingenious way with a lyric, but here he crafted a real pop score, and it’s as much fun as it is unexpected.
The young performers (there’s a core of 13 principals augmented by a gigantic but superbly drilled ensemble) in Dean Johnson’s high energy but focused staging were clearly having an absolute ball, but impressively never sacrificed clarity to exuberance. Corin Miller’s choreography – pitched somewhere between raw and slick, but never less than exciting – fares similarly. The only technical aspect of the production that didn’t quite work was the sound design which unfortunately rendered the lyrics almost completely incomprehensible for the first half of the show whenever there was more than one person singing.
Edward Flynn-Haddon was charming and likeable as bewildered New Yorker Evan while Ivy Pratt was genuinely touching, as well as vocally terrific, as Patrice, the funny, quirky school friend who adores him. Zoe Forward and Rebecca Nardin were great fun as a pair of Teen Queens falling out over the same boy, and Ethan Quinn (who was also in the 2017 version) was utterly brilliant as Evan’s friend Archie, a hyper-smart, manipulative youngster suffering from a degenerative disorder and entirely prepared to use his physical shortcomings to get whatever the hell he wants. Quinn’s comic timing is already that of a master.
Where 13 doesn’t quite work is in the disconnect between the vivacious score (Chris Ma’s band were excellent) and much of the dialogue in Dan Elish and Robert Horn’s amusing but – apart from the lack of any adult figures – hardly groundbreaking script. These young people (meaning the characters themselves, not this cast, all of whom are doing sterling work) sound authentically youthful when negotiating the peppy, poppy songs, but are saddled with a world weary borscht belt humour, that is frequently funny but seldom convinces as the utterances of school-going pre-teens. For instance, Evan, referring to his upcoming Bar Mitzvah: “For us it’s the one day everything in your life is supposed to be happy and perfect” elicits Patrice’s response “See, Catholics don’t have that day. It would go against everything we believe in” ….I laughed a lot but it sounds more like something one would hear on Seinfeld rather than in a school yard.
That’s a pretty small quibble though in a piece of upbeat musical theatre that could well prove a calling card into the industry for enthusiastic young people on both sides of the footlights. It’s a shame that BTA’s delightful new staging only got two shows at Cadogan, though it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see it back but on a more permanent basis soon.