In calendar order: Lompoc High School presents Matilda; Dos Pueblos High School presents Shrek: The Musical; Laguna Blanca presents Guys and Dolls; San Marcos High School takes on The Drowsy Chaperone; and Otto Layman, longtime director of the theater program at Santa Barbara High School, takes his final bow with Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame: The Musical.
Each of these musicals falls into an auspicious category: shows that can be done in (or adapted for) school productions. So few West End, Broadway, or off-Broadway musicals are appropriate for high schools. More often than not, the themes are too mature, the language is too caustic, the characters are not appropriate for child actors, or the singing parts are too intense for nonprofessionals. It’s challenging to find a high school musical that stands the test of time (many now register as racist or sexist in the changing cultural scape), interests the students, and is reasonable in terms of needed performance and technical capabilities. This batch of shows is both entertaining (to audiences and students) and educational in the connections the students make between the production and their own lives.
The season kicks off with Matilda at Lompoc High School in North County. Matilda, which runs March 13-22, features Lauren Jansen and Delanie Valencia in the title role of a precocious child genius who thwarts her principal, the Trunchbull (a true Roald Dahl–style villain), in her attempts to bully teachers and students alike. Matilda’s intense brainpower gives her the special skill of telekinesis, which allows for plenty of stage magic throughout the show. Based on the Dahl’s novel of the same name, Matilda has a lot of moving parts, but the whimsical outlandishness of the story and music make it an ideal show for teenagers (and a delight for their parents, who undoubtedly read the novel as a child).
Following on Matilda’s heels is the Dos Pueblos High School production of Shrek: The Musical, based on the 2001 film about an ogre who finds a family of choice through an enchanted adventure in the imaginary kingdom of Duloc. Because Shrek is a big, green, flatulent monster, he lives alone in his swamp to avoid the prejudice he faces throughout the domain. Matthew Kleeburg, who plays Shrek, commented on the relevance of this show to kids of high school age: “The whole show is about embracing who you are no matter what you look like or where you come from. I know a lot of high schoolers [who] wrestle with this every day. I hope that this show will help inspire everyone to learn to love themselves and those around them no matter who they are.” Shrek runs at DPHS April 3-18.
In the category of Broadway revivals, Laguna Blanca’s Guys and Dolls (by Broadway giant of yesteryear Frank Loesser) brings the history of Broadway to the present-day stage with this early Tony winner. “Guys and Dolls is definitely a classic! It’s the epitome of what a musical is, and all theater students should come to know this show at some point,” said director Miriam Dance. The songs are in the classic, mid-century Broadway style and encourage a generation of kids raised on Hamilton, Wicked, and Dear Evan Hansen to explore the theatrical style of last century, when theater bore stronger ties to vaudeville. The “guys” are small-time gamblers dodging the law; the “dolls” are the women who love them despite their ne’er-do-well ways. Through a modern lens, the show is campy and high-energy, and the students agree that working on this production has encouraged them to get invested in this new-to-them style of show tunes, “regardless of growing up in a certain culture,” said Dance.TK Guys and Dolls runs April 30-May 2.
At San Marcos High School, director Shannon Saleh is working with a different take on the “classic” Broadway, with the lively Drowsy Chaperone. This 2006 Tony winner shows a socially anxious Broadway fan (known as the “person in a chair”) alone in their apartment listening to a record of their favorite musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. This musical is from “the past,” set sometime in the general 1920s-1940s. As the record plays, the person in the chair imagines the production, which appears before their eyes. This armchair expert offers commentary on the production as it progresses. The play within the play is a marriage comedy that begins with the lead-up to the wedding of a tycoon and a starlet.
“The premise of the show is that theater and music offer a wonderful balm to the spirit and an escape from ‘non-specific sadness,’ which plagues our narrator,” said Saleh. “The show unfolds, scene by scene, from the walls of her apartment.” Said Roz Borah, who plays the person in the chair: “[This role] is by far the most challenging and most fun of anything I’ve ever gotten to do. My character basically never leaves the stage, so I’ve had a great time finding variety in lines that may seem similar on the surface and ways to tell smaller stories within the big one.”
The students have also found themes throughout this show of imagination being important in the 21st century’s influx of digital devices and the significance of storytelling in all its forms. The Drowsy Chaperone runs April 30-May 9.
Finally, Otto Layman takes on his final show at Santa Barbara High School before retirement, marking the end of an era. He describes the show, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as epic and tragic. Based on the main character in the novel by Victor Hugo, the Hunchback is the malformed Quasimodo (played by Daniel Sabraw), the bell ringer in Notre Dame cathedral. This iconic structure will be created on the SBHS stage for this story of romance and redemption.
After a life spent cloistered in the cathedral with the priests, including
archdeacon Frollo (Carter Beaudette), who raised him in the bell towers, Quasi decides to visit the streets below, only to find the world can be very cruel. Both Quasi and Frollo fall in love with the vibrant Esmeralda, turning Quasimodo’s awakening into a whirlwind of love and despair. The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs May 1-10; don’t miss Layman’s final show — he’s planning on retiring on the highest of notes.
With a five-show lineup of comedy and drama (and lots of great music), this year’s high school musical season promises laughter, catharsis, and some difficult goodbyes to seniors and teachers who’ve made their mark on these programs. These shows are creating and sending off the next generation of musical theater performers, educators, and appreciators into the world to continue perpetuating this amazing art form.