13 the Musical, Ambassadors Theatre, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

In Jason Robert Brown’s 13, young New Yorker Evan Goldman finds himself uprooted from home just weeks before his bar mitzvah, and after his parents’ divorce moves with his mother to a sleepy Indiana town.

Desperate for all the school’s cool kids to attend his forthcoming party, he tries to ingratiate himself with the jocks and cheerleaders, turning his back on the two friends who treat him as their equals.

As high school stories go, there’s not a great deal of originality in the set-up. But the predictability of the story provides a secure skeleton for Brown’s humorous lyrics combined with a book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, which elevate the story to delightful levels.

This production by British Theatre Academy’s youth section is a bright, bold, brash delight, performed by a team of young performers which really makes the show’s content shine.

To give as many as people as possible the chance to star in a West End production, each role is shared over the course of the run by two or three BTA members: on press night, the cast was led by an engaging Milo Panni as Evan.

As his next door neighbour and geeky social pariah Patrice, Madeline Banbury gets the opportunity to show off an impressively mature vocal style in several solo pieces, lending her character the weight her bookishly earnest character requires (the decision by designer Tom Paris to dress her in a Hufflepuff T-shirt is a canny one).

As the school heart-throb Brett, Lewis Ledlie physically towers above many of his classmates, epitomising the handsome jock stereotype, as he obsesses about dating cheerleader Kendra (Chloe Endean).

But under director/choreographer Ewan Jones’ tutelage, Ledlie manages to avoid making Brett too much of a lunkhead: he is not the brightest, maybe, but nor is he dumb. Like all the characters in 13 there is a sense of a good soul struggling in the race towards adulthood.

The only real villain of the piece is Kendra’s best friend Lucy, bent on breaking up her friend’s burgeoning relationship so she can snag Brett for herself.

With looks matching her Charlie Brown namesake and a demeanour closer to that of Lucy in Avenue Q, Isabella Pappas nevertheless imbues her with a sense of character that makes her rather more well-rounded than the role might otherwise suggest.

The star of the press night cast, though, is Ethan Quinn as Archie, the sickly child who is determined not to let his terminal illness prevent him from going after exactly what he wants. Quinn’s stage presence stood him in good stead when he played Little Boy in Charing Cross Theatre’s revival of Ragtime, and he has matured as a performer since then. With comic timing and a fine voice also in his skillset, this is one performer whose career is sure to grow from hereon in.

That’s not to say he’s unique among the cast, of course. The entire cast works hard to imbue the whole show with youthful vigour.

Jones’ choreography is fun and enthusiastic, just as a high school musical should be, while Paris’ set design, with its hand-painted, comic book aesthetic, is both simple and highly effective.

From Grease to Loserville, musicals have often sought to express the high school experience. Usually, they do so by appealing to adult nostalgia. And while Brown’s score for 13 often feels inspired by the former’s 1950s settings, this musical, unlike the others, feels like it captures the spirit of school in a believably teenage way. And as a West End show for the summer holidays, there aren’t many better.