Kelly Critic Review: 'Smile,' West Mifflin Area High School
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To be quite honest, at the end of a terrible week only slightly better than its predecessor, the last thing I wanted was to see a musical. I soon arrived, however, and wandered into West Mifflin High School's auditorium to find a seat. I was first struck by its size -- a massive school with a massive orchestra and, I was sure, a massive cast for "Smile."
First performed on Broadway in 1986, "Smile" takes place behind the scenes of the fictional California Young American Miss beauty pageant. Sixteen appropriately attractive high-school girls from around the country gather to compete for the glory and win the scholarship, making friendships and enemies along the way. Though it deals with themes typical of musicals popular in high-school -- beauty, betrayal, desire, the search for self-worth -- "Smile" provides a unique perspective on the inner workings of an American niche.
Beauty pageants are, I happily admit, part of a world thoroughly unfamiliar to me, but anyone can appreciate the challenges and hard of a thrilling competition. The show's opening number, "Typical High School Senior," captures every pageant contestant's excitement and trepidation before heading off for, as the pageant organizer describes to them in the following song, "The Very Best Week of Your Lives." Brenda DiCarlo Freelander (Katie Oeler), the pageant organizer, is a former Young American Miss herself and secretly dreams of recapturing her glory days by putting on a perfect pageant with this group of hopeful teenage girls.
Before the girls begin their week of singing, dancing, and proving themselves worthy of the judges' favor, we meet the two contestants through whom the audience experiences much of the story: Robin Gibson (Stephanie Hall) and Doria Hudson (Leah Amoroso). In their dorms, the two girls meet and discuss their dreams; Robin writes home to her beloved mother in the first of her "Dear Mom" solos, and Doria tells her new friend about her love for beauty pageants and her dreams of Disneyland.
Musical sparks soon filled the auditorium with the electric entrance of the show's most
entertaining character -- Tommy French (Eric Selvaggio), the pageant choreographer. French, with a comically bored and bothered attitude, teaches the girls a show-stopping dance number in "Shine." Each girl practices an appropriate thank-you speech for thejudges that reflects her unique and winning personality -- in essence, individualized sales pitches for hopeful young teenagers upon which rest their tenuous futures.
As even the name suggests, "Smile" concerns itself primarily with the age-old idea of selling oneself on self-confidence and stylized beauty. Though originally set in the1980s, West Mifflin's production attempted to subtly carry this story forward by rewording several topical lyrics and lines for a 2012 audience. Changing the occasional mention of "President Reagan" to "President Obama," while amusing, didn't quite mesh with some other anachronisms; some characters still sang of watching "black-and-white television" at home.
Opening night usually leaves room for improvement, and this performance at West Mifflin was no exception. Some singers in the first few numbers seemed simply out-of-breath, not just breathless from the spirit of the performance. The production did catch some snags in the first act, with distracting missed microphone cues and a few desynchronized dancers, but everyone hit their stride just before intermission. "Until Tomorrow Night," perhaps the show's most exciting number, sets up the enthusiasm and the fear of judges' night, leaving the audience energized and ready for the story's culmination.
West Mifflin's production also included a wire mesh screen that, when lowered, separated the stage into background and foreground scenes. When the cast sang a sad goodbye to Santa Rosa in the show's final number, the shadowy screen allowed them to perform memories in the background. Behind this veil, the sixteen contestants reenacted their first procession through the pageant hallways, in awe of the world around them, while at the front of the stage, the Finale commemorated the end of their life-changing week.
After this opening night performance, I left the theatre glad I spent the last hours of my week losing myself in the energy and the experiences of such clearly passionate performers.
First Published April 4, 2012 4:51 pm