By Robert Price


For The Herald


Today's high school musicals are not your grandparents' high school musicals. Or even your parents'. The level of professionalism and sophistication displayed by today's high school theater students is often beyond belief.


It's like going to a Broadway show … for 10 bucks.


"In thinking about the evolution of the high school musical, I think more emphasis has been placed on doing as professional a show as possible. High school theater has come to be seen as a chance to see terrific theater that has spared no expense to be as fine as it could be," said Blair Academy's Craig Evans, who has seen that evolution up close while directing for 40 years.


True to Evans' words, Blair tackled the extravagant and demanding "Chicago" recently, with great success.


Of course public schools don't always have the resources of a prep school, and it's expensive to stage a top-notch production, as Roy Chiariello has discovered during his 16 years of attempting cutting-edge shows at Kittatinny Regional High School.


"Advancing high school theater into the modern world has only one major challenge – money," said Chiariello, whose Kittatinny Players are staging "The Addams Family" this weekend. "Each year, we dedicate a significant amount of funds towards creating a more technological theater production. These funds are generated through massive amounts of fundraising and tremendous help from our Board of Education when funds are available. The days of relying on just ticket sales and selling a few ads for a program are long gone."


To that end, the Kittatinny community has established the Kittatinny Players Booster Club, which this year is supporting a show with large ensemble dance numbers and dynamic scene changes in "The Addams Family," a traditional musical with a modern twist.


Like Kittatinny, the Pope John Players continue to raise the bar each year. After staging "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Newsies" the last two years, Pope John is tackling the area premiere of "Miss Saigon," this weekend.


"We have actually built the Huey helicopter and are using a real, working Cadillac," said director Jacquelyn Burt, a history teacher who is always looking to incorporate history lessons in Pope John's plays. "Miss Saigon" is the story of a doomed romance between an American Marine and a Vietnamese teen, in the setting of the Vietnam War.


"We have large numbers of students who keep asking for challenges at the next level," Burt said. "We continue to try and offer those challenges each year. But you can't just challenge the cast. The pit, set and tech crew want the challenge as well. I think the main evolution is not in our mission, which remains the same, but in our expectations."


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Theresa Riccardi, who's been directing for 21 years at High Point Regional, agrees with Chiariello about the financial restraints of pushing high school musicals forward.


"I find one of the greatest changes in high school musicals is the rise in production costs to achieve the artistic and technological demands of new musicals and familiar revivals," she said.


Celebrating the film's 80th anniversary, High Point Theatre is presenting "The Wizard of Oz" April 3-5, with a senior citizens luncheon/matinee April 5.


"The students and our team of directors are thrilled to be bringing this iconic musical to the High Point stage," Riccardi said. "Adapting a movie screenplay to the theater stage can be both exciting and challenging. Our incredibly talented 53-member cast is doing an exceptional job creating their interpretation of this classic and magical story. Click your heels and follow the yellow brick road to High Point in April."


Chad Flynn, who's directing "Mamma Mia!" at Jefferson Township High School, sees the obvious changes inherent in modern shows.


"I have been involved in directing and producing high school shows for over a decade now and the process of producing theater is relatively the same," Flynn said. "Some of the more modern shows need either special effects, or costumes, or even adapting the pit music, but our show is pretty standard as far as set and costumes go. This is one of my first rock and roll shows I have done so the pit is mostly made up of keyboards, drums and guitars, which is different than a classic orchestral score, but it will still be played all live."


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For the Sparta High theater program, which is staging "Beauty and the Beast" March 6-8, the spring musical is always a community experience.


The actors will perform a portion of the play for all of Sparta’s elementary students on March 4. These students will be bused in from Helen Morgan and Mohawk Avenue schools for an in-district field trip. In addition, a selected group of performers will visit Alpine Elementary School later that same day.


Angela DeLuccia, who is in her 19th year of directing and producing, not only hopes to get kids excited about coming to see the production in full, but she also hopes that some of those students will be inspired to follow their artistic dreams.


It is also the tradition that the students perform a dress rehearsal (March 4) for senior citizens, who are bused to the high school from Knoll Heights for a complimentary dinner. This is coordinated with the Key Club.


"We also coordinate through our Pass It Along program for young students from Tilly’s Kids to come from Newark to see one of the performances," DeLuccia said.


DeLuccia is assisted by Paige Lucas, choreographer; Dr. Debbie Gianuzzi, pit conductor, Laura Lopez, choral conductor; Lisa Tafuri, set designer; Andy Lopez, sound coordinator, and Bob O’Grady and Dennis Romano, set construction.


The student leadership team includes Tessa Gori, student director; Esha Iyler, student choreographer; Kyle Neuwirth, student technical director, and Kavya Kamath, stage manager.


"The Sparta High School musical theater program is a family. We are blessed to have such a diverse and talented group of students and faculty who come together to create outstanding productions," DeLuccia said. "Every year, our program continues to grow. With the support from Mr. Steve Stoner, director of student activities, parents, students and the entire Spartan community, Sparta High School theater is thriving."


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Vernon Township High School is staging "My Favorite Year" March 12-14.


"I chose the play because I fell in love with the show 20 years ago when I was in it at West Milford High School and always hoped I'd be able to work on it again," said director Lindsay McAloney. "I loved it because it has a different heartbeat than most shows. It's not the typical, boy meets girl, falls in love with her, something happens, he chases her, etc. It's an entertaining show from start to finish."


"My Favorite Year" follows the storyline of a man in his dream job as a writer for a comedy show and he finally gets to meet his childhood hero, only to find out everything isn't as he expected. It's based on the 1982 film with Peter O'Toole and was on Broadway in the '90s with Tim Curry as the lead, Alan Swann.


Some directors like to go from one extreme to the other from year to year.


"I chose to do this musical because last year we did 'Sweeney Todd,' which is a rather dark show. I wanted to choose something cheery that had a lot of fun energy and that had recognizable songs," Jefferson's Flynn said, of his choice of "Mamma Mia!"


Coincidentally, Lenape Valley is also performing "Mamma Mia!" Both schools scheduled it for March 20-22.


"Following this year's fall drama, 'The Uninvited,' the students and I wanted to lighten the mood with a fun, time-of-your-life musical," Lenape director Michael Donahue said. "So what else better to fulfill that excitement than "Mamma Mia!"


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Newton High School is staging Roald Dahl's Tony Award-winning masterpiece "Matilda," March 20-22. "Matilda" revels in the anarchy of childhood, the power of imagination and the inspiring story of a girl who dreams of a better life. Packed with high-energy dance numbers, catchy songs and an unforgettable star turn for a young actress, "Matilda" is a joyous girl-power romp.


"Matilda" is directed by Brendan Scullin, with musical direction by Sarah Kuhns and choreography by Kimberly Jackson. Steve O’Toole is the pit conductor.


Kerri Batche, who is directing "Guys and Dolls" at Hopatcong High School April 23-26, said she is simply "a big fan of classic Broadway, and 'Guys and Dolls' has some of the best music out there."


"Guys and Dolls," featuring stories from New York City's underworld, opened on Broadway in 1950 and won a Tony Award for Best Musical.


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Like Blair, Sussex County Technical School's Drama Club is tackling the high-energy, high-tech Broadway mainstay, "Chicago: High School Edition," March 13-15, at McNeice Auditorium in Sparta.


"We decided to choose this well-known piece and pay tribute to the 1920s, 100 years later," explained director and Drama Club adviser Jaime Villani. "We also wanted to choose a musical with a different dance and acting style for the students to explore."


Assisting Villani are choreographer Erin Ashton and musical director Michael Yannuzzi.


Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse's "Chicago" first came to Broadway in 1975. The revival currently running on Broadway opened in 1996 and is the second longest-running show ever on Broadway, behind only "The Phantom of the Opera."


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Wallkill Valley Regional High School’s Performing Arts Department is presenting a musical not often seen on high school stages - "Freaky Friday" - March 13-15. "Freaky Friday" is a musical adaptation of Mary Rodgers’ 1972 children’s novel and Disney’s subsequent 1976 and 2003 film adaptations. The story follows teenager Ellie Blake and her mother, Katherine, on the weirdest, strangest, craziest, freakiest day of their whole lives.


The show is directed by Christine Molnar and Jennifer Grabowski, with choreography by Denise Kulhan and orchestral numbers with Jeff Colarusso.


Molnar is always quick to point out that Wallkill's plays, like most, encompass a team effort well beyond the stage.


"While the singing, acting and dancing take center stage, much work goes on behind the scenes as well," she said, pointing to woodshop, art and graphics programs, as well as ad sales and parents volunteering wherever needed. "It’s a community effort to say the least, and we are lucky to have such talent and dedication in the Wallkill Valley community."