In high schools, spring means musicals

April 25, 1995|By Carol L. Bowers and John Rivera | Carol L. Bowers and John Rivera,Sun Staff Writers

Usually it's a great voice or a knack for hamming it up that lands someone a part in a high school play.

Sometimes, though, it's a talent that's a little more obscure -- like Douglas Lubunyz's ability to crack a whip and twirl a rope. The admittedly shy 18-year-old's hobby made him a natural for the part of a cowhand in the Northeast High School production of "Oklahoma!"

Seeing students like Douglas come alive is the best part of staging the musicals that have become a rite of spring in Maryland high schools, said Anna Walker, play director for the Pasadena school.

"That's what high school plays are all about, allowing kids to have an opportunity to explore other parts of their personalities," Mrs. Walker said. "Being in a play builds self-confidence. It shouldn't be dramaaaah with an 'h,' and it shouldn't be about being in a clique."

Whether the part is a lead role or a walk-on bit with no lines isn't important, the students say. It's the experience of performing in front of peers, parents and the public that will be one of their most precious high school memories.

"I didn't care if I was the mime in intermission, I just wanted to be in the play," said Leah Gates, a 16-year-old freshman at Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson.

Lead female role

She won the lead female role in the school's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George," in which the characters in a Georges Seurat painting come to life.

"Being on stage is the most incredible feeling in the world," Leah said. "You don't ever have to do drugs. You're up there on stage and everybody's looking at you, and you feel powerful -- you feel like you could do anything, like you could fly."

The part of Seurat is played by 16-year-old David McShea, who spends as much time as possible on stage, whether it's in school or a community theater.

"Theater and being on stage is not for everybody," he said. "But then, I can't draw, I can't build anything, I can't put lights together. It's just something I've found I can do."

Gene Skeens, a senior at Chesapeake High School in Essex, decided he couldn't leave high school without being in the annual musical. "I sing all the time, so I figured I might as well try out," he said. "It was my senior year, after all."

He won the lead part, Curly, in the school's production of "Oklahoma!," one of the more popular plays this season.

Choosing a play can be a difficult decision for directors that is complicated by the New York theater scene.

"Grease," a 1950s rock 'n' roll love story, has been a favorite in recent years.

"That's one of our most popular plays," said Allen Hussung of Samuel French Inc. in New York, one of the largest publishing houses in the country. "Unfortunately it's restricted right now. It's on Broadway."

The most popular

A play like "Grease," however, can give school administrators headaches because it includes raw language and scenes in which characters smoke and drink.

"If you want to fill your theater with kids, it's the most popular," said Patti Scott, who teaches drama and English at Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn.

Last year, though, she cut out references to smoking.

"I think what's said from the stage can make a strong statement as to what is acceptable, what is cool, and we don't want to send the wrong message," Mrs. Scott said.

"We were thinking about doing 'Fame,' but I would have had to make a lot of changes because there's a lot of vulgar stuff in there," said Victoria Weedon, who directs the productions at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena.

She decided on the tamer, but still popular, "Bye, Bye Birdie."

The drama department at Atholton High School in Columbia staged "Fame" last year and caused a bit of controversy.

"My parents had a problem with the language I used, and they told me after the show," recalled 17-year-old Sara Glazer, a member of the Fame cast who is playing Dorothy in this year's production of "The Wiz."

The school nixed one show this year to avoid sending shock waves through the community. "We wanted to do 'Rocky Horror [Picture Show],' but Columbia people really aren't into gyrating bodies and transvestites," said Seth Callick, a 17-year-old senior who plays the Wiz.

Talent dictates choices

Sometimes, though, it's simply a matter of the talent on hand.

"Some years you have great dancers. Another year, maybe you're short on real attractive people or guys that can carry a song," Mrs. Scott said.

"I would love to do 'Fiddler on the Roof,' but in the seven years I've been here, I haven't seen a guy who could do it," she said. "So when Zero Mostel signs up for school, then I'll do that play."

As a result, it's not unusual for schools to stick to classics with large casts, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!," which is being performed this spring by at least three Baltimore-area schools.

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