What's the matter with kids today? A new musical illustrates the case.

Photograph: Joan Marcus

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5

Aren’t kids cute when they sing and dance? Don’t you want to just eat them up? The actors in the tweensploitation musical 13 are all around that age themselves; even the band is made up of teenagers! Isn’t that precious? If I were their mother, I’m sure I would be kvelling. But I am not their mother, and neither are you. So be nice to these hardworking youngsters. Pinch their cheeks and tell them how talented they are, and then kindly, sweetly, supportively tell them to please get the hell off Broadway.

Let me be clear. The problem with 13 is not the age of the cast; many good musicals have employed child performers to fine effect. Nor is the problem the age of the characters; as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee showed, pubescence can be musicalized with wit and sensitivity. No: The problem with 13 is the age of the audience—not the real audience, but the imagined audience as conceived by the corporate imagination. The show is a cynical pitch to the Little League mind.

The ostensible hero of 13 is a 12-year-old New Yorker named Evan (Graham Phillips), whose plans for a smokin’ bar mitzvah party are ruined when his parents get divorced and his mother moves him to Appleton, Indiana. (His father has run off with a stewardess, who must have flown in on a last plane from Tritesville.) After becoming fast friends with the bookish Patrice (Allie Trimm), he learns that she is unpopular at school and treats her cruelly in order to ingratiate himself to the in crowd. Evan, of course, will learn valuable lessons. His behavior throughout 13 is not much different from that of the so-called mean kids—inevitably led by a dumb, blond jock (Eric M. Nelsen) and a slutty, gossipy cheerleader (Elizabeth Egan Gillies)—but we are meant to root for him anyway because he is Jewish and adorable and the main character.

Jason Robert Brown can write a catchy tune and comes up with several here: a snaky gossip number, “It Can’t Be True,” is fun Labelle lite with a reggae undertone; “Bad Bad News” gives a pleasing Brill Building gloss to 1960s man-soul; “A Little More Homework” appealingly melds Billy Joel and Des’ree. But these numbers are chained to Dan Elish and Robert Horn’s insipid book, which drags the audience through a gauntlet of shallow characters and prefab devices. (Rundown of social strata at school? Check! Comical attack to the groin? Check! Accidental boy-boy kiss? Yuck! Check!)

Directed by Jeremy Sams, the cast performs with practiced enthusiasm and, occasionally, real spunk; Eamon Foley, for instance, all but bounces into the rafters. But Brown’s lyrics often stuff adult words and thoughts, sitcom-style, into their mouths. (“You’re completely exotic /Intellectual, neurotic…”) Only in the character of Archie (the canny Aaron Simon Gross)—who suffers from a degenerative disease and walks on crutches—does the show break from its shackles of formula; his duet with Evan, a neovaudeville number called “Terminal Illness,” has a dark humor that briefly brightens the stage.

Broadway, it seems, has come to believe that children are not only our future but our present. Young audiences have driven the long runs of The Lion King and other Disney shows; they have also helped make Wicked a hit, and kept Legally Blonde alive. Producers have noticed this and seem to have concluded that, where ticket-buying choices are concerned, the purse strings are tied to the apron strings. Kids are where the money is, and shows are a business. The implicit message: Suffer the children, or suffer the consequences.

But suffering the children has consequences of its own. It is one thing when a show like Wicked, with a broad-based appeal to audiences of all ages, gets a boost from the enthusiasm of its younger fans. But 13 has almost nothing to recommend it beyond niche marketing. In terms of artistic quality, it is on a par with syndicated television schlock like the 1990s sitcom Saved by the Bell, not to mention any number of schematic movies about middle-school social management. The long-term effect of such programming for the Broadway brand may be significant. Once the image of the Great White Way was one of sophisticated quality; in catering to a cliché of tweendom, the Street is trading its soul for Lunchables.

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Book by Dan Elish, Robert Horn. Dir. Jeremy Sams. With ensemble cast. 1hr 35mins. No intermission.