When Is There Life After High School opened on Broadway in 1982, it ran for a measly 12 performances. Six months later Cats opened and ran for 18 years. The summer of '82 was apparently the exact time that commercial theatre crushed quality theatre on Broadway.
The Astoria Performing Arts Center bills Is There Life After High School as "One of musical theatre's best kept secrets," and they couldn't be more right. Craig Carnelia's score should be a Broadway classic, but this mega-flop had even fewer performances than Urban Cowboy. Carnelia's lyrics are also of legendary quality, virtually dripping with wit and subtext. Jeffrey Kindley's book doesn't quite hold its own with the music, but it still makes the perfect framework for Carnelia's songs.
Is There Life... is a musical review, and each song is more or less its own little story. Between the songs are monologs and vignettes that usually have little to do with each other or the songs they precede. While there's no linear plot, everything in the show is about the emotional baggage that people carry with them after high school. The phenomenal opening number "The Kid Inside" perfectly sums up that baggage. Most people will find themselves strongly identifying with at least one of these characters, whether it's the withered 30-year-old former homecoming queen (Noel Marie Berkofsky), the ex-nerd (Matt Wilson),or a former bully (Tommy Labanaris).
The show achieves a certain degree of cohesion near the end, as the characters gather for a high-school reunion. There Kindley's book reaches its high point and provides a cathartic conclusion.
The cast were sometimes painfully perfect for their roles (Matt Wilson MUST have been picked on in gym class). They also handled the swift transitions from comedy to drama skillfully and managed to keep straight faces during some of the sillier moments, like when all nine members of the cast mimed a marching band in the "Thousands of Trumpets" song that started Act II.
Director Brian Swasey also choreographed the show (including the silly but effective marching band). ... High School is rich in subtext, and many of the songs and scenes could be directed in more than one way. Swasey had a good feel for the material (unresolved high-school issues?) and steered it toward a proper balance of drama and comedy.
Since the location changed a dozen times over the show, Tim Bennett Sagges used a multilevel set composed of stair-like platforms that ringed the orchestra, each platform housing a school chair with those little mini desktops built into the right armrest (remember those?). Niklas Anderson's lighting design relied heavily upon spotlights to cover this widespread playing area.
Why this show failed on Broadway is baffling. Ahead of it's time? A weak book? Perhaps its thirty-something themes were a little too hip for the bus-loads of blue-haired grannies from Idaho who flocked to see Cats year after year? Whatever the reason, there's no excuse for today's audiences to miss out on this production of "Musical Theatre's best kept secret".
(Also featuring Tara Lynn Cotty, Michael Deleget, Maura Kelley, James Mack, Robert McCaffrey, and Stephanie Sine.)
Book: 1/ Lyrics: 2 Music: 2
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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby