Producer: Neil Meron Director: Tamra Davis Screenplay: Robert Horn Cast: Eli Gordon, Gabriella Uhl, JD McCrary, Lindsey Blackwell, Frankie McNellis, Jonathan Lengel, Ramon Reed, Nolen Dubuc, Luke Islam, Shechinah Mpumlwana, Khiyla Aynne, Willow Moss, Kayleigh Cerezo, Liam Wignall, Peter Hermann, Josh Peck, Rhea Perlman and Debra Messing Distributor: Netflix
In 2006 Disney had a huge cable hit with “High School Musical,” which spawned a couple of sequels, some spinoffs and a streaming series. The following year saw the premiere of the original stage version of this Netflix movie, which made it to Broadway in 2009 for a brief run simply titled “13,” though it could have been called “Middle School Musical.” It made history in being the first, and so far only, Broadway musical to feature a cast and accompanying band composed entirely of teenagers.
This movie does not simply replicate that show. It’s been rewritten by Robert Horn, who wrote the original book with Dan Elish, and incorporates some material from the children’s novel that Elish and Jason Robert Brown adapted from it; there are, for example, adult characters here who were not in the Broadway show. And while it includes some of Jason Robert Brown’s songs from the original score, others have been jettisoned and a few new ones by him added.
The result of this operation is that while the basic narrative has been retained, it’s been transformed into something very like a sappy sitcom, with all the characters but one made so nice and the atmosphere so relentlessly chirpy that it’s hard to endure, despite a pleasant cast of youngsters. And the plot, never all that logical to begin with, has under Tamra Davis’ direction become even more muddled.
It centers on Evan Goldman (Eli Golden), a New York City kid just turning thirteen and preparing for his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Shapiro (Josh Peck). Sadly, his dad Joel (Peter Hermann) is divorcing his mom Jessica (Debra Messing), who has decided to take Evan to live with her mother Ruth (Rhea Perlman) in her hometown of Walkerton, Indiana.
Evan is understandably bummed out by this, since it will require him to make a new life in a very different environment from the one he knows. It also imperils his desire for a huge, successful bar mitzvah: not only will they be the only Jewish family in the town, but he won’t know any kids there.
So he immediately sets out to make friends. Before school starts he hangs out happily with Patrice (Gabriella Uhl), his granny’s book-loving, socially conscious next door neighbor, and Archie (Jonathan Lengel), a wheelchair-bound boy who lives across the street. But when school starts, he finds that both of them are shunned by the cool kids he’ll need to cultivate in order to get them to come to his party.
Chief among these are football star Brett (JD McCrary) and two girls who are best friends, Kendra (Lindsey Blackwell) and Lucy (Frankie McNellis). Kendra and Brett have gotten close over the summer, much to the distress of Lucy, who wants to be his girlfriend and will go to any lengths to prevent them from kissing. Evan, on the other hand, hopes to curry favor with Brett by arranging for him to have an opportunity to kiss Kendra. His machinations infuriate Patrice, especially after he involves Archie, who’s infatuated with Kendra himself, in his plot. When his plan explodes, the outcome threatens the friendships he’s tried to build and his dream of a proper bar mitzvah party, as well as the “meant to be” romance between Kendra and Brett, who’s now Lucy’s lapdog and a flop on the football field. But rest assured, things are solved with a song or two.
Those songs, it should be noted, are not apportioned equally; despite the addition of adult characters and the substantial time allocated to Perlman, Messing and Peck they get no chance to sing, although a good deal of time is devoted to their worrying about Evan. It’s the young cast who are called on to deliver Brown’s score, and they do so energetically, especially in the group numbers that bookend the picture—“13” at the start and “Brand New Me” at the close, which have a good deal of the buoyant “High School Musical” spirit and are choreographed by Jamal Sims (and edited by Joe Galdo) in similar style. But there are clunkers: McNellis’ big number, “Opportunity,” is terrible, though she performs it with zest, and the big production number “Bad News,” in which Brett’s teammates (Luke Islam, Ramon Reed, Nolen Dubuc and Liam Wignall) bemoan the effect Lucy has had on him, isn’t much better. (But then, a number that ends with the verse: “She’s bad, bad news, even though she has excellent shoes,” probably never had a chance.)
Still, the youngsters in the major roles, as well as those in the chorus, are all talented and engaging, though their characters are uniformly bland. (Brett, it might be noted, was a more bullying figure in the play, but has been airbrushed here.) One might have expected more of Perlman, but she comes across as very understated, and Ruth’s repeated attempts to induce Jessica to take up writing again are utterly boring; Messing’s dour demeanor, moreover, gets old fast, while her talks with Evan amount to little more than boilerplate. Hermann is just dull, and Peck’s Shapiro is so endlessly cheeky and enthusiastic that surely he deserves the title of Super-Rabbi.
Completing the package is a visual palate courtesy of production designer Amitra Corey, costumer Emily Gunsher and cinematography Adam Santelli that goes for a candy-colored look of Mayberry Americana. There are very few dark shadows here (as well as no evidence of actual education going on in the school, except of the social variety.)
Viewers around the titular age may respond positively to “13: The Musical,” but anyone older will probably find it hard to take, despite the likability of the young cast.