Schenley musicals go out on high note with spunky 'Seussical'
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If the end had to come, and it did, and it has, "Seussical the Musical!" is a fitting vehicle. Energetically seizing the stage as the 40th and final Schenley High School spring musical, it cocks its snoot with jaunty defiance and indulges in one last joyful, sardonic Zowie!
This is the Dr. Seuss of the deliciously subversive children's books, which are as rich in heart as in wild invention. Their knowing, wise-guy humor never obscures the honest emotion at the core. So what better for Schenley's final musical?
Not that the musical is dying on its own. You couldn't kill it without killing the school, which left its condemned Oakland building a couple of years ago, found refuge in the old Reizenstein building, and has gradually been subsumed into the new Obama Academy.
For its musical, it has borrowed the stage at Peabody High School. Obama may one day have its own musical, but "Seussical" is the end of the line for Schenley. Fortunately, that end is still three performances off: "Seussical" wraps up Saturday.
It's an appropriate vehicle because the story is all about skin-of-your-teeth survival based on nothing but heart, faith and plenty of good humor. Co-conceived by Lynn Ahrens, Dormont native Stephen Flaherty and Monty Python's Eric Idle, it draws on "Horton Hears a Who!" and more than a dozen other Dr. Seuss stories, according to Seussian scholars better informed than I.
Joining Horton the Elephant are shy Gertrude McFuzz, brassy Mayzie LaBird and the infinitesimal folks of Whoville, including the imaginative Jojo, but the figure who gives the musical its characteristic vigor and sass is the indomitable, brassy Cat in the Hat.
Because I'm writing an elegy as much as a review, let's anoint the Cat the animating spirit not just of this musical or even the Schenley musical comedy tradition but high school musicals in general, which have to use their wits in the struggle to survive in the jungle of budget cuts in competition with the bigger, more voracious beasts of sports.
Like the Cat, high school musicals survive by being fast on their feet, with ironic good humor and the support of dedicated friends among faculty and parents, not to mention the bottomless energy of the kids involved.
You see that energy right off in the slam-bang dancing of the opening number. The feisty director, Kelly McKrell, doesn't claim to be a choreographer, but she, student choreographer Andre Rand-Mathis and a willing cast fill the stage with pulsating movement, such that the big production numbers are the show's heart. Smaller dance numbers are strong, too, especially the flashlight dance.
Mr. Flaherty's ebullient, varied score is melodic and lively, and his and Ms. Ahrens' lyrics (many lifted directly from Dr. Seuss, of course) are a lot of fun. Aisha Sharif leads a capable orchestra of about two dozen, two-thirds or so students, the others teachers or professionals. Vocally, the cast is uneven, but characterizations sustain musicality when needed.
The star is Tyller Little's frenetic, subversive but also authoritative Cat. He really embodies that Seussian staple, a mix of gotcha! irony and expansive emotion. My other favorites are Thing 1 and Thing 2 (Mr. Rand-Mathis and dance captain TaJaya Thompson), a pair of perpetual motion imps who move props and people and play any little role that comes along, vibrating with sniggling attitude the whole time.
Solid in the other most important roles are Aman Milliones-Roman (Horton), Raine Rivera (Gertrude) and Keyanna Taylor-Thomas (Mayzie).
The lighting and sound are very uneven, mainly due to the limited facilities of the host school, Peabody, which does no musical of its own. That's mainly a matter of budget and lapsed tradition, I suppose, because Peabody's most famous musical alumnus was Gene Kelly.
Tradition is what the Schenley musical has been all about, thanks to the inspired leadership for decades of the much admired Roger Babusci. That tradition is in evidence at "Seussical," where the front of the Peabody stage sports a row of plaques bearing the names of every Schenley musical from 1972 on. Perched on each plaque is a hat characteristic of each show. At Saturday's final show, alumni from all 39 previous years will be there to don those hats and join in the finale. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
For more coverage of high school musicals, go to post-gazette.com/theater and scroll down on the right to the High School Musicals link.
First Published May 3, 2011 12:00 am