Is There Life After High School? – Must-See Musical at L.A. Theatre Center

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When a passionate follower of musical theatre scans the local entertainment listings and reads that an obscure show that flopped once upon a time on Broadway is being produced locally, there’s a chance that said stage buff will feel tinges of excitement, anticipation, and curiosity. Certain flops, to the true lover of musical theatre are like a favorite athlete who never really succeeded in the pros, but for whatever reason held a special place in a fan’s heart, and when they came through with that unlikely no-hitter, home run, or game-winning touchdown catch, it’s like you always knew they could do it.

The shows that could’ve but didn’t are usually preserved via an original cast recording, and often times, many years after the fact, one listens and wonders “What happened? This is a really good score.” This critic has, for many years, held a similar fascination with Craig Carnelia’s 1982 musical pastiche IS THERE LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL? The cast recording contains several songs that have found a later life as cabaret standards (“The Kid Inside,” “Nothing Really Happened”) and is an overall interesting listen that whets the appetite for a full production.

Not a revue in the traditional sense, but not a story with a plot either, the show’s characters are individuals attending first a ten-year high school reunion, and the 20-year counterpart a decade later. Stories of regret, insecurity, and romances are told, as are tales of wedgies, locker stuffing and cheerleader treachery. We meet late bloomers who’ve prospered as adults, and popular kids who peaked too soon. The vignettes are funny, poignant, and sometimes painfully familiar to all who roamed the halls of a high school.

UCLA Department of Theatre’s new production of this long-neglected obscurity is, in itself, like attending a reunion and seeing that the nerdish-but-kind-of-cute wallflower has blossomed and become the person no one can take their eyes off; the quirky but cool hottie.

From top to bottom the outstanding cast finds all the right beats amidst the sea of hormones, disappointments and triumphs portrayed in the songs, monologues and dialogue. The stirring “The Kid Inside,” touches on one of the show’s recurring themes, that many of us, most perhaps, never completely leave high school. The song is delivered beautifully by the full ensemble.

Lamar Hughes delivers a touching song, “For Them,” about friends who took or were led down unfortunate and tragic paths, while another highlight is Bryan Chester’s virtuoso solo in the rousing “Reunion.” “I’m Glad you Didn’t Know Me,” is a lovely and amusing duet sung by opposites (Carolyn Maire Wright, Walter Gray IV) who later attracted.

The best moment of all is “Diary of a Homecoming Queen,” the tale of the popular girl who married young, and never found the happiness or fulfillment she enjoyed as a teen. The song is staged to both moving and humorous effect, as ghost-like figures of classmates, and the cheering throng move in slow motion amidst the confetti-covered king and queen. Anne Butler’s performance of the song is stunning and heartbreaking.

The production is also packed with quick exchanges, thoughtful monologues and even a memorable fight scene nicely helmed by Edward Monaghan. Along the way Vikas Adam effectively portrays both a tough and a misfit, and Nina Law brings outstanding depth to her many fine moments, particularly in a second-act monologue. Jeremiah O’Brian scores as a loveable lunkhead, while Joseph Tower manages to convey a wonderful everyman quality to his role as an outcast-turned-success. Beautiful and sexy Sam Bianchini displays star quality and then some playing the bad girl who’s been dipping into the liquor cabinet since kindergarten. Josephine Keefe is constantly endearing playing a character that parallels the show: the awkward duckling who becomes more swan-like with every entrance.

Director Gary Gardner keeps the action moving fast, thus enhancing the quiet and slower emotional moments. He and choreographer Christopher Albrecht keep the stage pictures constantly interesting, while understanding when to dispense with dance and instead punctuate ensemble numbers with class photo-style groupings and strong, harmonious vocals. The costumes, designed by Traci LaDue have an effective but unselfconscious period feel, and work well as both student and reunion attire. Cameron Mock executes some terrific lighting effects, adding layers to the minimal set. The entire production is technically impressive.

Whether you are a musical theatre fanatic or just an appreciator of good theatre, IS THERE LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL? is a must see, and with just three remaining performances (Dec. 5, 9, 11) it’s also a hurry up and see. It’s funny and touching, very human, has great music and a stellar cast. UCLA’s theatre department has wisely unearthed this buried gem, and turned it into a treasure.

IS THERE LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL? plays Sunday, Dec. 5 at 3 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 9 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m.

Los Angeles Theatre Center 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Produced by the UCLA Department of Theatre.

Admission $35. Students/seniors $20. SPECIAL: At the Thursday, Dec. 9 performance, all seats are $10.

Reservations: (866) 811-4111

Online ticketing: www.thelatc.org

Book by Jeffrey Kindley

Music and Lyrics by Craig Carnelia

Suggested by the book by Ralph Keyes

Directed by Gary Gardner

PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Schroepfer

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