13 at the Apollo sounds like an American space mission but marks instead the West End debut of composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, whose best known musical, Parade, directed on Broadway by Hal Prince, has been produced twice in London on the fringe. He remains a somewhat shadowy, ever-promising musical theatre figure with a niche market following.
You can see why in this cheerful but ultimately anodyne production of a 2008 Broadway show -- directed by the composer himself -- for the National Youth Music Theatre, which is playing for just a few performances this week.
It's full of the all-purpose get-up-and-go coming of age songs at Dan Quayle Junior High that sound culturally prehistoric, as if West Side Story, let alone Merrily We Roll Along, had never happened.
And who in the NYMT remembers Dan Quayle anyway? (Jackie Mason said we should be grateful for President Bush; he stopped Dan Quayle becoming president.) Geeky 13-year-old Evan, who is about to be barmitzvah'd, enlists in the school, in Appleton, Indiana, after his parents have divorced and he has had to leave Manhattan.
Why? His mom said it was up to him, "which is Jewish for 'You're coming with me.'" The book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn then settles into a fairly routine take on popularity and friendship among the adolescents, with sex and movies looming in the background.
At its best, the show is sweet and charming, at its worst, not so much Grease as gross, with young Evan (played with an appropriately pimply persuasiveness by Guy Harvey) forgetting who his best friends really are, including one of them on crutches ("No-one says no to a boy with a terminal illness," is a big "ouch" moment).
There's an onstage band under the musical direction of Torquil Munro, and some lively choreography by Drew McOnie, but the sound system is bad and many of the lyrics loud but inaudible. And why do I find it sad to see so many vivid young performers miked up for musical theatre like this? It's like an alienation exercise.
As ever with the NYMT, there's a whole lot of talent bubbling away, but I can't honestly say I liked any of the songs beyond their rhythmic jollity and find it difficult to respond to Robert Brown's claim that Evan's embrace of Appleton is in some way a meaningful metaphor of falling in love with the theatre.