It’s an obscure musical that was not a big hit on Broadway.
But once you’ve seen the Manatee Players production of “13 — The Musical,” you have to wonder why it isn’t better known. It’s a fun and funny show with a little bit of substance and just enough heartstring-tugging. It’s short for a musical, under two hours counting intermission, but it’s brimming with phenomenal songs by Jason Robert Brown. (He also wrote the songs for “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Parade,” for which he won a Tony Award.)
The story, about a boy displaced from his Manhattan home and trying to make friends in a small town in Indiana, is pleasing, though it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. The characters (and there are lots of them, all played by young actors) are neither stupid nor annoyingly precocious. They’re pretty much normal kids with the normal joys and problems that kids that age have.
But the book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, perceptive and occasionally hilarious as it is, is mostly just the framework for Brown’s pop-flavored songs. The 10-year-old show is set in more-or-less contemporary times, but a lot of the songs have a ’50s feel to them. The joyful doo-wop is a great fit for the startlingly good cast in the Manatee Players production, which carries off some impressive harmony.
Probably one reason you don’t see too many productions of “13” is the difficulty of finding the dozen-plus kids with the talent and poise to pull it off. Manatee Players have put together a cast that’s even stronger than it needs to be. At first you find yourself being impressed with how talented the performers are for their age. But soon you drop the qualifiers and realize it’s a great cast, period. You’ve probably seen plenty of musicals with adult casts that weren’t as strong as this one.
There are no bad performances. Not one. All the kids sing, act and dance well. Among the standouts are Audrey Lipton, who played Anne Frank for Manatee Players recently and here gets a chance to show off her comedic and vocal chops here, Ryan Modjeski as a smart and charming kid who needs crutches to get around, Joshua Devine as the protagonist and Elijah Zurek as a sidekick of the small town’s coolest kid.
The backing music is recorded, and sometimes the young performers don’t have the power in their voices to be heard over it. Other times it’s obvious that they have to sing in uncomfortable keys.
But director/music director Kyle Ann Lacertosa and choreographer Ashley Cronkhite have done great work in getting professional performances from these amateur performers. Cronkhite’s exuberant dances look great but let the kids act like kids, and don’t demand terpsichorean polish beyond the cast’s abilities.
Another reason you don’t hear much about “13” might be that it’s kind of a tricky show to market. It’s a show about kids and featuring kids, but it’s really aimed more at adults. High-school age kids may enjoy it, but the accuracy of the writers’ crisp observations about adolescence are probably more easily recognized in retrospect. Grown-ups may connect to the material in a way that most teenagers won’t.
Details: Through Jan. 29, Bradenton Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $26. 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.