The Kelly Critics is a joint program of the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh CLO in which students of high schools entered in this year's Gene Kelly Awards review other school's musicals.
Aside from the usual eager nerves and anticipation that characterize such occasions at other high schools, the opening night of Schenley's "All Shook Up" held significance far beyond the walls of the performance hall. Just weeks ago, the school suffered the loss of former teacher Roger Babusci ("Mr. B"), who devoted himself to 35 seasons of creating the school's trademark theatrical "magic" -- a legacy of high-quality, highly-entertaining performances.
Add to this the looming threat that this season's show might be the last in Schenley's native auditorium, and the weight of the situation could have easily overshadowed the performance itself.
Schenley, however, had other plans. Everyone, from the high-spirited performers onstage to the bustling parents working the box-office, seemed almost to exclaim, taking a cue from the show's libretto, "It's Now Or Never."
As the band revs up, the audience is greeted by a rockin' choir of jailbirds, led by the one and only Chad--a hip-swingin', motorbike-rumblin' roustabout, "with a song in his soul, and a love for the ladies."
Integrating his own repertoire of jazzy choreography, actor Will Gasch both highlights his prowess as a dancer and brings a fresh, Justin Timberlake-meets-Elvis feel to the character. Behind him, a host of dancers, scattered among a multi-level assortment of cells, slowly builds to include the entire company in a dynamic rendition of the classic prisoners' lament undoubtedly capable of livening up even the most downtrodden institutions.
Focus then shifts to an establishment sorely in need of such excitement, dubbed by its clientele "Heartbreak Hotel." Here, we meet Sylvia, played by Teressa LaGamba, who first catches the audience's attention with her gritty, sarcastic humor and then takes their breath away with her unexpected vocal force. (When she began singing, I had to reassure myself that the voice, elegantly yet soulfully resounding through the auditorium, was not a recording.)
In another part of town, the show's heroine Natalie Haller, a "grease monkey" yearning to escape her small-town upbringing, is also enlivened by her actress ability to both charm and impress. Sarah Jane Kirkland's striking voice is made even more endearing by her tomboy-next-door personality -- especially when (who else?) Chad rolls into town on his motorbike, bringing just the type of escape the instantly-smitten Natalie was looking for.
But, as Broadway would have it, Natalie's pursuit of Chad is anything but simple. The motorist's well-intentioned rebellion not only exasperates the overbearing Mayor Matilda Hyde (Hannah Thyberg), but also manages to ignites the town's long-suppressed appetite for romance, by the end of the show entangling the entire cast in a web of star-crossed chaos that makes the traditional love triangle seem absolutely tame.
Even a jumbled plotline such as this, however, never stole the spotlight from those onstage. From the moment the lights dimmed to the final bows, cheers of eager parents, loyal friends and a sprinkling of faithful neighborhood patrons -- with enthusiasm comparable to the roar of the crowd at most high school football games -- boomed throughout the auditorium.
It was this evident sense of community that allowed Schenley to take what would otherwise be written off as a testing situation and turn it into something truly magical. Whether in the moments of surprisingly-well-executed dramatic and choreographic teamwork (for a group of over 40 performers), or in the unmistakable passion shining through the smiles of each cast member, Schenley managed to prove, as their program so wholeheartedly attests, "They can take the kids out of Schenley, but they can't take the Schenley MAGIC out of the kids!"
Casey McDermott is a student at Chartiers Valley High School. You can contact Casey via PG theater editor Christopher Rawson at firstname.lastname@example.org.