'Is There Life After High School?' is comedy in a class by itself

July 08, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

If you're able to laugh at all looking back on your teen-age years, chances are you'll find something to like -- and something that rings true -- about "Is There Life After High School?"

The musical-comedy review, which opened last week for an open-ended run at Winchester's Comedy Theater on Water Street, works wonderfully as a look back at high school from an adult perspective. Full of clever songs, raucous choreography and energetic actors with strong voices, the show is 90 minutes of good-hearted humor with a few surprisingly poignant moments thrown in.

Rather than focus on one particular time and place, "Is There Life After High School?" addresses the entire high school experience. At one moment, the actors are dancing away at a sock hop that's clearly out of the early '60s; a few minutes later, one character sings about graduating in 1984.

By refusing to be pinned down, the musical, which debuted in London and has been produced in New York, manages to be far less cloying than its most obvious antecedent, "Grease" (a play that gets more and more annoying the further removed we become from the 1950s). Instead of working as a period piece, "Is There Life After High School?" touches on the shared experiences of its audience.

Isn't it bizarre, the show asks, how we thought things like speech teams and band practices were important? Isn't it curious that some of us have never again been able to reach the heights we scaled in high school? And isn't it amazing that events that looked so tragic and impossible to live through 20 years ago seem so petty today?

The songs, written by Craig Carnelia, are uniformly excellent. Especially notable is "The Kid Inside," which opens and closes the play by reminding us that we never totally graduate from high school, and "Thousands of Trumpets," an ode toa marching band gone quiet. "Trumpets" opens the second act with a tap dance that is the show's high-energy mark.

In true ensemble fashion, the nine-member cast -- almost all with local backgrounds -- works more as a unit than as a group of individuals. Their voices are excellent, their movements on stage fluid. No one member outshines the other -- with one exception.

When Susan Bradford sings "Diary of a Homecoming Queen," either because the solo is the show's emotional high point or because she does it so well (probably a combination of both), it's a toss-up whose eyes tear up more, hers or the audience's.

Director Robert Neal Marshall, a Baltimore native with experience on the New York and London stages, keeps things moving briskly, and his steady hand helps ensure the cast's uniform excellence. Darren McDonnell's choreography works wonderswithin the relatively tight confines of Winchester's, and Robert Marietta's set design evoke subtle memories of dancing in the high school gymnasium without dominating the actors onstage.

"Is There Life After High School?" could have trouble speaking to contemporary audiences, particularly those not far removed enough from high school to appreciate both its absurdities and its wonder. And kids growing up in cash-strapped urban schools, where violence often rises above the level of an old-fashioned fistfight, may have trouble finding anything quaint about their experiences.

But for those who can look back on their teen years as the most wonderful horrible time of their lives -- those who know that, whatever happens, there is life after high school, both good and bad -- the play should prove the next best thing to Homecoming.

PASSING NOTES

What: "Is There Life After High School?"

Where: Winchester's Comedy Theater, 102 Water St.

When: Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m.; Thursday, 10:15 p.m.; Saturday, 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; Friday, 8:30 p.m.

Tickets: $15 Saturday matinee, $18 Tuesday-Thursday, $20 Friday and Saturday evenings

Call: (410) 576-9467

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