‘13 the Musical’ review: A sweet, if simple coming-of-age musical about a bar mitzvah in small-town Indiana [Grade: B-] 

13 the Musical made a splash when it premiered on Broadway in 2008 as the only Broadway show to have a cast and band entirely made up of teenagers. With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, the show follows a 12-year-old boy named Evan Goldman as he deals with moving from New York City to a small town, making friends, and preparing for his bar mitzvah. However, the show is probably best remembered today for marking the professional debut of Ariana Grande, who played one of the cheerleaders. 

This focus on a young cast made it a surprising choice for a screen adaptation, which would necessitate introducing adult characters into the mix. And Tamra Davis, who hasn’t directed a feature film since 2002, was an interesting choice for director. However, composer Brown not only contributed new songs but also serves as an executive producer. Horn returned to adapt the screenplay and used the 2009 novelization to supply more material for the story. The plot of the musical has been significantly reworked for the film, making several of the characters more likable, cutting out some songs, and weaving the adults’ presence into the story. 

13 the Musical opens with Evan (newcomer Eli Golden) practicing for his bar mitzvah with his rabbi (Josh Peck) in New York City. He’s on the verge of turning 13 years old and struggling to deal with his parents’ divorce, especially because it means he and his mom Jessica (Debra Messing), are moving to Walkerton, Indiana, to live with his grandmother (Rhea Perlman). He’s obsessed with ensuring that his bar mitzvah is the party of the century, saying that the coming-of-age ritual is like “the Jewish super bowl.” 

Being the only Jewish family in Walkerton certainly doesn’t make fitting into a new school any easier, though only Lucy (Frankie McNellis) exhibits any real anti-Semitism. Evan makes a fast friend in Patrice (Gabriella Uhl), a bookish girl who is passionate about environmental rights and doesn’t care about fitting in with the popular crowd. However, he quickly ditches her when it becomes clear that she’s standing in the way of getting the other students to come to his party. 

While Evan gets wrapped up in the drama between the school’s golden girl cheerleader Kendra (Lindsey Blackwell), her crush Brett (JD McCrary), and her best friend Lucy, there’s also a side plotline of his grandmother trying to convince his mom to return to her dream of being a writer. Kendra and Brett plotting to have their first kiss is much more entertaining than the Hallmark Channel-esque way that Jessica dealing with her divorce is treated. 

The film is as cheesy as you would expect from a cheery film about middle schoolers learning the importance of friendship instead of just popularity. Its filmmaking is almost Disney Channel Original Movie-like, from the editing to the bright squeaky-clean sets. After he moves to Indiana, Evan’s grandmother tells him, “I know you’ll miss your friends and your school and bagels,” and he asks, “How can anyone sleep with all this quiet?” Clichés aside, the script does a decent job of capturing the way that 12- and 13-year-olds interact. 

The biggest asset that the film has is its young cast. It’s refreshing to see age-appropriate kids doing age-appropriate dance numbers in a film like this The ensemble is diverse – perhaps even too diverse for a tiny town in Indiana? – and all of the child actors have impressive vocals. The cast is a result of an open casting call, and it’s certainly possible that this musical could launch the career of several of them. 

This score doesn’t stand up to some of Brown’s other work, like the haunting Parade or melodic Bridges of Madison County. The songs are nowhere near as memorable as those from his The Last Five Years. But there are a handful of highlights from Patrice’s “The Lamest Place in the World” to Lucy’s “Opportunity.” A surprising favorite of mine was “Bad News,” sung by several of the young male students, with fun choreography to match. 

13 the Musical is perhaps most notable for its Jewish representation. It’s rare to see Judaism repped so casually in media about middle schoolers like this. Evan’s religion is, Lucy aside, not a point of conflict or something that makes him stand out but rather the impetus behind his bar mitzvah. The audience is treated to part of the ceremony in Hebrew, and it may serve as a small introduction to the concept for those unfamiliar with it. 

13 the Musical is nothing extraordinary, particularly when it comes to its filmmaking, but it’s put together well enough to be able to be enjoyed. The young cast’s vocals make the musical numbers much better than many of those in movie musicals today. While it might not be a masterpiece, Netflix’s 13 the Musical also doesn’t have the misfires that its previous musical, The Prom, did. (For example, there’s no James Corden in sight.) 13 the Musical is a sweet and heartwarming story that will almost make you wish you were 13 again.

Nicole Ackman is a Public History graduate student at NC State University and a film, television, and theatre critic. She is Rotten Tomatoes and Cherry Picks approved and is a member of the NCFCA and OAFFC. You can find her on Twitter, probably talking about period dramas or Andrew Garfield, at @nicoleackman16.

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