Watching 13: The Musical as someone with no familiarity with the stage production, it is immediately apparent why it might have worked live. There’s a certain joy for grown-up audiences in seeing children do things customarily meant for adults. An easy, comparable example of this principle is Alan Parker’s 1976 film Bugsy Malone, a musical about prohibition-era bootleggers acted out entirely by kids. Where that finds success by draping its young stars in the trappings of the gangster movie, this has an almost entirely teen cast doing the big-energy numbers of a Broadway show, which are more fun to watch live in the room than through a screen. This brisk adaptation seems more intent on recreating that energy than finding the best shape for the story to take within its new medium, making it very difficult to care about anything besides the young talent on display.
In 13: The Musical’s nice, clean premise, protagonist Evan Goldman (Eli Golden) faces a disappointing reality. Thanks to his parents’ divorce, the NYC native is moving with his mother to her small hometown of Walkerton, Indiana, where he will now be forced to hold his Bar Mitzvah. Determined to make it the best coming-of-age party ever, he must find a way to make new friends fast enough to invite them all, which could prove challenging. He and his mom moving in with his grandmother triples Walkerton’s Jewish population, after all. However, when any aspect of a culture-clash narrative is quickly abandoned, Evan’s struggles prove those of a much more standard teen movie. His first friend in town, Patrice (Gabriella Uhl), turns out to be the school outcast, and he immediately drops her to get in with popular kids Brett (JD McCrary), Kendra (Lindsey Blackwell), and de facto antagonist Lucy (Frankie McNellis). This, as viewers might expect, causes things to get worse before they get better.
13 is one of those movie musicals eager to sprint from song to song, and in this particular case, anyone not already Broadway-energy inclined will find that tough to sit through. The music itself is very poppy, and the numbers tend to chase a certain visual dynamism — both through camera movement and group choreography — that grows tiresome when deployed so consistently in rapid succession. There is fun to be had when the movie taps into the awkwardness of its titular age, as in the opening “Thirteen/Becoming a Man” or “Bad News,” sung by Brett’s abandoned friends after he starts dating, but that mileage is limited when it’s the only source of engagement. This movie really needed to spend more time on its characters and their relationships, both of which seem designed to service the plot, rather than constituting full-fledged human beings worthy of emotional investment.
Thematically, 13: The Musical is perhaps more frustrating, since there was obviously much more potential in the set-up than this adaptation tapped into. Evan’s Jewishness, something initially positioned at the heart of the story, is essentially rendered a non-factor in the movie’s central conflict. The challenge of having his Bar Mitzvah in this particular town — where he learns he’ll have to hold it in a church instead of a temple — should be his status as cultural outsider, which could mean grappling ignorance, stereotypes, or even prejudice from his peers. In a situation where he feels he has to sell his classmates on the concept of a Bar Mitzvah, Evan could travel his own journey to understanding its importance beyond his desire to throw the world’s greatest party. A conclusion in the opposite direction, if perhaps an unlikely path for this lighthearted musical to take, would have been equally interesting as a character arc.
Instead, after a couple overtures to those issues, his challenge turns out to be that he is new. 13: The Musical’s strikingly diverse casting certainly has its virtues, but it also (perhaps inadvertently) frames Evan’s new school as a place of tolerance, where being “other” is essentially a non-issue. This, too, could have been made interesting — perhaps Evan is the one with misconceptions of small-town life — but it only neutralizes the importance of the cultural overlay. Instead of being faced with people who are different from him in ways he’s never experienced, his classmates are just people who don’t know him yet, and the movie leaves very little doubt that, once they do know him, they’ll like what they see. With nothing of substance to chew on, the only thing a (committed) viewer can do is strap in for the 90-minute runtime and wait to hear a tune they like – and hope that, once it’s over, they emerge earworm-free.
13: The Musical is available to stream on Netflix Friday, August 12. The film is 91 minutes long and is rated PG for some thematic elements and rude humor.