Community Perspective: High School Musical – Spotswood’s turn… A review and appreciation

A contributed perspectives piece by Glenn Logan Reitze

A curious and maybe even wonderful ritual occurs annually in thousands of high schools in the early weeks of the calendar year, usually from about mid-February to mid-March. It’s called The Musical, and for thousands of young people who feel even slightly warmed by a burning desire to be seen and perform, it is the time to try their wings and soar.

The phenomena is alive and well in the Shenandoah, and has been for many years. Our high schoolers (and a few middle schoolers) and their teachers generally are very good at this. Perhaps they may even seem quite surprisingly so, if you come to your first such performance expecting to see nothing more than “mere children” trying their best for relatives and friends.

Oh, there is certainly some of that. There is the wonderfully enthusiastic farmer in the audience who claps so loudly at his son’s first appearance that it hurts the ears of those seated nearby, and there are girls who squeal surrealistically at the sight of their best friend doing a cartwheel in a staged dance.

These are to be excused. It’s all part of the ritual, like cheering for the possibly hapless home team at the homecoming football game, when the fresh-faced young warriors in shoulder-padded foam armor proudly file fifty-strong onto the playing field to the somber beat of the drumline and the cheers of the crowd.

But we digress.

This little sketch is about a particular Musical performed by students at a particularly school – Spotswood High School in Penn Laird, Virginia – on a particular night — Saturday, February 25, 2023 – in its sold-out auditorium, with a jovially raucous audience overflowing with family and friends very much ready for a roaring good time.

Under such circumstances, what the Musical was may not even much matter.

But, for the record, it was Grease, the latest student stage version of the 1971 musical play, written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, and set in the Chicago of 1959. The work later won much greater fame when released in 1978 as a musical romantic comedy heavily re-written as a starring vehicle for John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.

So the modestly funded play at Spotswood was Grease, but not quite the same as the multi-award-winning movie, which had a budget of $6 million. In contrast with the glitzy movie, the stage musical is more an ensemble piece, with much less emphasis on the boy-meets-girl aspect of the plot, although the play script has been strengthened a bit by a few key musical additions and plot changes that originated with the movie.

The nice thing about an ensemble approach is that it gives cast members who may not have star billing a chance to shine on their own, even if only for a song or two.

And in the Spotswood version, they do.

The lead roles of the would-be romantic couple (the good & innocent “Sandy” and the not-such-a-bad-boy “Danny”) are well impersonated by Stella Hale and William Blackwell, and Stella’s singing in the role is excellent.

The entire cast did a fine job, but some merit special mention, particularly the vivacious singer and dancer Helen Padgett as “Rizzo,” who was at her sardonic best in the humorous parody song, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra D.”

But it was a male singer who was the most surprising: Colin Cahill as “Teen Angel” was simply an astonishingly good singer, with a distinctive and memorable voice. It will be no surprise if he achieves stardom as a recording artist. But there is still a different surprise: his twin brother Aidan Cahill, is also in the cast, playing “Roger.” And he is likely equally good.

There were also excellent singers and dancers in the ensemble as well, including several girls in Elvis wigs awkwardly disguised as guys. I’m afraid they didn’t look much like men, but they did sing and dance magnificently, and looked adorable – even one with a painted-on mustache!

Overall, the energy was high, and the effect was joyous. The directing by Justine Mackey was admirably effective. All the choreographer was impressive, with credits for this going both to adults Melodie May and Claire Wayman, as well as to Student Choreographers Mackenzie Schmidt and Natalie Singerlang.

The Music Director was Nathan May, whose vast work was impressive, while Sean Macomber led the student pit orchestra that consistently does a fine job, and rarely even gets noticed.

Although we didn’t review them this year, on the weekend before this production, The Bridgewater area’s Turner Ashby High School presented their Musical offering, Mamma Mia, with enthusiastic renditions of its wonderfully singable pop songs by Abba. And during the weekend preceding that, Harrisonburg High School presented their Musical, Disney’s Newsies, with excellent choreography and singing, and lots of enthusiasm.

It should be noted that most, if not all, local high schools go to the immense effort to mount productions of a Musical. Even the middle schools of Harrisonburg – Thomas Harrison, Skyline, and Eastern Mennonite – regularly produce special versions of musicals that can amuse kids, and are generally very well done.

All of the high school musicals normally are at least y good enough to entertain kids as well as grumpy retired old men, and they are occasionally so well done they can leave strong impressions even years later.

One example would be the amazing production of the opera (yes, actually an opera – all music, no unsung dialogue) Les Mis, based on Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 French novel, Les Misérables. The Musical/Opera was produced at the Harrisonburg High School in 2012, with a student cast that amazingly seemed almost to rival that of Broadway.

Another amazing student performance was that of the 2018 Turner Ashby High School performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, The Phantom of the Opera. The two leads were fantastic. Who knew high school kids could sing and act so impressively. Production values also were exceptionally high.

And there have been other minor miracles in student theater productions in the surrounding area, including Staunton.

The school productions are open to the public. They are usually staged on Friday through Sunday nights, with a matinee on Saturday, and sometimes Sunday as well. But they often are sold-out long before opening night, so reserve tickets early.

Glenn Logan Reitze is a retired journalist and attorney. He writes (and illustrates) children’s books, poetry, songs, and experimental drama. He and his family live in Penn Laird VA.

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