High school musicals have many pleasures and you don't always know where you'll find them. On opening night at Elizabeth Forward, the final bows ended, the curtain closed, the applause died down, and as the audience started to file out, there was a thunderous cheer -- backstage.
It clearly was the cast, sharing its sense of achievement and relief. They hadn't had a preview performance, the adult creative team was new and the musical itself, "The Wedding Singer," wasn't one of those shows that "everyone knows" (even if a teenage cast only knows most of those famous shows secondhand). But they had brought the big ship safely into dock, and they had earned their own jubilation at the happy result.
What followed then was the more usual post-show celebration in the lobby, the instantaneous melting together of cast (still in costumes and makeup) and the audience of family and friends. There was none of the cleaning up that professional actors do first -- with high school shows, the post-show meltdown and merger is almost instantaneous, as the suave hero, romantic leading lady and imposing villain turn instantly back into happy high school kids, still high on the magic of the stage.
That's a scene I always love, but you don't get its full ebullience and flavor unless it's been earned first by what went before, and at Elizabeth Forward, it was.
To start, there's the material. "Wedding Singer" is a better musical on a high school stage in 2012 than it was on the Broadway stage in 2006 or as a movie comedy in 1998. That's because high school students provide the innocence that compensates for the calculation and exploitation you felt on the silver screen or Broadway.
In a high school there also isn't as much of the social condescension you might detect toward the Touch of Class Catering and Banquet Hall in (of course) northern New Jersey. And 1998 is just recent enough for most of the musical's comic situations and jokes to make sense to the cast without explanation by an older hand.
We even still employ wedding singers, right? Or if not, someone else steps up to handle the mix of schmaltzy song and effervescent emcee patter that the occasion seems to demand.
The musical's story concerns Robbie, a nice, smart, if somewhat hapless guy with a small band which plays mainly weddings. He's about to be married when his intended jilts him, so he turns sour on weddings and goes off to make money, no matter how. Meanwhile, he's been getting closer to Julia, a waitress who is engaged to Glen, a successful (but riding for a fall) stock broker. And there are other characters who serve variously as friends and foils.
"Wedding Singer" depends heavily on the performer playing Robbie Hart, even with a cast of nine and ensemble of 27, as at Elizabeth Forward. David Barr carried the load well. A thin figure who's at home on the stage, David showed a relaxed control of his material. His opposite, Julia, was played by Lisa Lujetic, very sweet with a pretty voice. She wasn't vivid at first, but she gradually asserted herself as she and her character gained self-confidence as the show went on.
Playing the villain, smarmy Glen, Bailey McCune was smart and good looking, as required, but never shirked playing the character's essential comic superficiality. And how smart can he be if he turns down Starbucks stock and relies on junk bonds, instead?
Grandma Rosie (Kayla Bilak) and best friends Sammy (James Benedek) and Holly (Mattie Winowitch -- all spunk and attitude) led the supporting troops.
There was plenty of strength in the large ensemble, which also took pleasure in playing fools as required, as in a comic number where Robbie singles out a table full of awkward misfits to dance with. Another stand-out comic ensemble number was "Single," in which a dozen men (a big male ensemble for a high school musical) sang about the supposed joys of non-commitment.
Directors Justin Turpin and Alana Wieclaw crafted each scene well, with just a slight hiccup as one shifted into another. The stage crew moved the set pieces expeditiously, and Ms. Wieclaw choreographed some enthusiastic dance numbers.
Sometimes adversity adds emphasis: Opening night there was a short sound and light failure, but the cast maintained its composure and carried through well.
Joining the directors in steering their first show were music director Christie Solomon and producer Angie Berna Milliren. All have been involved in previous shows, so they moved easily into lead roles.
Judging by the result, all clearly know that the focus of every high school musical should be on the cast, helping it access its creativity and have fun in the process.
With "Wedding Singer," a possible pitfall is the frank, even shocking language of the script. You can't leave in all the expletives and sex talk, because there are children in the audience -- not to mention possibly censorious parents and nervous school administrators. But you can't take it all out without losing the atmosphere of the story and attitude of the characters.
In this case, the directors steered a careful line, and as a veteran of a half-dozen versions of "Wedding Singer," I didn't miss anything -- and I still shared with the rest of the audience some laughs of surprise.
Well done all around.
For a schedule of more than 100 high school musicals in Western Pennsylvania, go to www.post-gazette.com/theater.neigh_south - highschoolmusicals
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published April 5, 2012 7:30 PM