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TEENHOOD'S FIRST MUSICAL BLOOM.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Critic

``13,'' the new musical by Jason Robert Brown and Dan Elish, is an experience so good-natured and exuberant that it's damn near impossible not to embrace. Which, perversely, is also the musical's major stumbling block. These steppin', rockin', newly minted teens are a little too all right.

There are, as billed, 13 13-year-olds in this tale of a transplant looking to fit in, and all are played by age-appropriate actors. Musical director David O -- leading a six-piece young teen band -- is the only adult to set foot on the Mark Taper Forum's stage during ``13's'' entire 105 minutes.

To a person, our performers are skilled, charismatic, versatile and shot through with more than enough electricity to charge this musical and three others like it. We will be hearing much, much more from the likes of Tyler Mann, Emma Degerstedt and Sara Niemietz.

Straight outta Indiana

Whether the ``13''-ies are also representing their designated age with any kind of social or psychological authenticity is another matter. These are mostly upper-middle-class kids. Nobody's overweight. A few are black. Yeah, these kids encounter rather standard-issue teen problems -- most involving peer pressure and loyalty -- all of which are quickly laid to rest. After all, there's a party at show's end, and who among us -- thank you, John Hughes -- can't fashion a bit of self-reinvention once the music is playing? You've perhaps heard of ``High School Musical''? This is ``After School Special: The Musical.''

Anyway, our Everyteen hero is an uprooted New Yorker named Evan (played by Ricky Ashley), who ends up in Appleton, Ind., following his parents' split. His upcoming bar mitzvah bash is Evan's first and best shot at getting in with the cool kids. Which means his outsider best friend Patrice (Niemietz) doesn't get an invite. Oops.

The physically disabled Archie isn't bar mitzvah A-list material either, but he blackmails Evan into securing him a date with head cheerleader Kendra (Degerstedt). Kendra, of course, has her own dilemma. She's sweet on school quarterback/BMOC Brett (J.D. Phillips). The feeling is mutual with Brett, as long as their date results in Brett getting to ``second base.'' (To repeat: Jocks, cheerleaders, nerds and all the rest are only 13.) Evan, who has a reputation for being a brain, is enlisted to set things up, and he takes the blame when matters go south.

Brown, Elish and director Todd Graff may want to delve into these kids' minds and hearts, but ``13'' is at its best when the tone opts for playfulness over earnestness. ``The Bloodmaster,'' which finds the group trying to advance their agendas while watching a splatter movie, is staged with more than a little cheeky genius. As is ``Being a Geek,'' with Evan, a rabbi (played by Mann) and a chorus of nerds.

Powerful songs

On the more somber side, Niemietz unleashes a heartbreaking rendition of ``What It Means to Be a Friend'' while clutching her notebook for dear life. ``Tell Her,'' Patrice's coded love duet with Evan, is equally beautiful.

Ashley is quietly effective as Evan, and Mann does good geek as Archie. Mann, in fact, gets the musical's thorniest moment. The show has reached its ultra-fuzzy, youth-empowering conclusion, and even Archie gets a bit of wish fulfillment, if just for a moment. When he tries to clutch it, it pulls away. But, of course, the music continues. The song, after all, is titled ``Brand New You.''

The makers of ``13'' throw this bit of jaggedness out there and let it evaporate into the air. The Evans, Bretts and Patrices, we suspect, will be just fine. If drugs, isolation and sex (beyond second base, that is) await, Appleton's brightest aren't there yet.

Maybe in ``15'' the musical, which probably isn't coming from this team.

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson@dailynews.com

13 - Three stars

Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through Feb. 18.

Tickets: $55 to $65. (213) 628-2772.

In a nutshell: Would that the teen age years went down this easily.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Tyler Mann, left, Ricky Ashley and Sara Niemietz act out the angst of their age in ``13.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 9, 2007
Words:715
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