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Monday, June 19, 2017

"ROMY AND MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION" is probably much more fun than yours was — A Review

Cortney Wolfson as Romy and Stephanie Renee Wall as Michele in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
I could begin this review of the musical Romy and Michele's High School Reunion with the words, "The 5th Avenue Theatre has done it again!" But then I would be repeating myself. The 5th is renowned for the number and quality of its new works. In the past 17 years, the amazing talents there have created 18 new musicals, including this one. Nine of them have gone on to Broadway. Two have won Tony Awards® for Best Musical. Therefore, I will begin instead with the ending—a standing ovation accompanied by as much applause as I have ever heard within the walls of this historic theater. That level is likely to continue every night during its run, which ends on July 2, 2017. Everyone can relate to its messages. This high-energy, colorful, and fun musical, is based on the 1997 film by the same name, which I must confess I have never seen. Regardless of how it might compare with the film, this production dazzled the crowd on opening night.

Stephanie Renee Wall (Romy), Cortney Wolfson (Michele) and the cast of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka

Directed by Kristin Hanggi, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion takes a realistic look at the anxiety surrounding any 10th high school reunion. In this case, it's taking place in 1997 for the Class of 1987 from fictitious Sagebrush High in Tucson, Arizona. Devoted best friends, Romy White (Cortney Wolfson) and Michele Weinberger (Stephanie Renee Wall) have been roommates since graduation, now living in Los Angeles. One is employed and one is not. They spend a lot of time in bathrobes, sitting on the couch in their messy apartment, watching TV. Or maybe they dress in the over-the-top fashions they prefer and hit the club scene. 

When Romy and Michele receive a reminder that their class reunion is happening in two weeks, they debate whether to attend or not. Once they agree to go, they are in a mad dash to come up with facetious ways to impress their classmates and hide the fact that they have next to nothing to show for an entire decade after graduation. They pretend to be business women, each claiming (separately) to have invented Post-it® Notes. The results of how they clumsily execute these falsehoods, along with revelations of their real feelings about and for each other, test their friendship and give the story the tension it needs to be more than a cliché.  

Cortney Wolfson (Romy White) and Stephanie Renee Wall (Michele Weinberger) in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit Tracy Martin
Romy and Michele's High School Reunion explores the nature of friendship, the viciousness of high school's mini society, the pressure to succeed and to survive harsh judgement, and the self discovery and self acceptance hopefully acquired with maturity. Who doesn't remember a caste system dominated by your own high school's equivalent to this musical's "A-group," clique of snobbish girls? In this case, they are the cheerleaders, a unfair stereotype, to be honest, but one often held up as an example. Their mean-spirited leader is Christie Masters (Tess Soltau) who has claimed and will dominate the school's most popular male heart throb, Billy Christianson (Michael Starr). 

Hannah Schuerman (Toby Walters) in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka
Sometimes insecurity and immaturity can make "nice" people be cruel. Then there are the not-nice ones who will always be that way. As in real life, elevated social status in high school does not always last. Most of us have seen popular kids end up losers and some of the so-called "losers" end up great successes. To its credit, the musical is honest in showing how even the victims and the heroines themselves were capable of hurting others in turn. 

Among those carrying wounds from the past are three quintessentially typical characters every class has. They are the rebel "bad girl" smoker Heather Mooney (Jordan Kai Burnett), the cheerful goody-goody, Toby Walters (Hannah Schuerman) who is nice to everyone, even those who laugh at her behind her back, and the nerdy guy whose attentions are always rejected, in this case Sandy Frink (Michael Thomas Grant). Like the two co-stars, all these other cast members, and the ensemble, gave outstanding performances.

Jordan Kai Burnett (Heather Mooney) in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit Tracy Martin

The show's fine acting and singing, impressive dancing, and, more made for non-stop enjoyment. The music and lyrics, by Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay, don't hold back. Fabulous choreography by Peggy Hickey and the work of Dance Captain Trina Mills made it hard to even blink your eyes. The dance moves synchronized perfectly with the music. Tim Symons directed, and played in, a great combo of keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums. Amy Clark dressed the cast in the ideal costumes. Another fine aspect was The 5th Avenue's typically versatile, well-functioning, and clever stage sets, this time designed by Donyale Werle.

Although the truths presented in this musical exist in every generation, certain aspects of the show can make the viewer aware of generational differences too. Its flavor, and rightfully so, is definitely of the 1980s and '90s, making those of us who were busy being parents by then feel uncomfortably old. The music stuck me as being a bit too loud, but I think people who did graduate in 1987 probably liked it that way. On the plus side, even with the volume up, I could hear and understand all the lyrics, so kudos to Christopher Walker's excellent sound design and the engineering. Some of the bright lights shining right in my eyes at times bothered me a little, but again, I might be extra sensitive to that. The lighting overall greatly enhanced this musical. It was definitely a visual treat in so many ways. 

Of course it is silly. Of course some aspects of the plot seem farfetched. But we go to musicals to escape the real world for a couple of hours and be happily entertained. No one fulfills that wish with as much style, class, quality, and pizazz, or true success, as this wonderful venue. Considering all that, I guess I will end up repeating myself.

"The 5th Avenue Theatre has done it again!" 

Treat yourself to the pleasure of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. For your convenience, here's a link to the online box office

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