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Western Pa. high schools strive for excellence on stage with musicals

| Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, 11:26 a.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Tom Crone, producer and director for Woodland Hills High School's production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street', gives direction during a rehearsal at the high school on February 21, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The cast of Woodland Hills High School's production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' takes direction during a rehearsal at the high school on February 21, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The cast of Woodland Hills High School's production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' takes direction during a rehearsal at the high school on February 21, 2014.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Carly DeCock joins her Upper St. Clair High School students in rehearsing for their upcoming musical 'All Shook Up' Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.

Alizabeth Leng of Whitehall said she enjoys taking part in Baldwin High School musicals because the shows convey so much emotion.

“I want to connect with everybody,” Leng, 18, a senior, said of her role this year in “Shrek” as Princess Fiona. “That's what it's about, the arts connecting people.”

Justin McCord, who will play Judge Turpin in Woodland Hills High School's “Sweeney Todd” production starting next month, said musicals are “just something I really love to do.” McCord, 16, of Swissvale, won a Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Gene Kelly Award as Best Supporting Actor last year.

Woodland Hills musical co-director Thomas Crone said there isn't a huge emphasis on competing for the Kelly Awards. “It's more about the performance than the accolades,” he said.

Woodland Hills has an $80,000 budget for this year's musical, which means the school will compete in the highest budget category of the Kelly awards, Crone said. The Woodland Hills School Board supports the production with salaries for faculty advisers — which Crone doesn't count in the total — and ticket and advertising sales cover the rest. This year's show includes a lighting designer and choreographer.

“The kids deserve to be surrounded by good lighting, good sets, good costumes,” Crone said.

High schools in the region, even if they don't compete in the Kellys or other awards programs, stress a high level of performing excellence in spring musicals, some of which open this week.

Kiesha Lalama, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera education director who supervises the CLO Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater, said she has noticed several trends in high school musicals. They include more participation by athletes and shyer students who have seen the “High School Musical” movies and the “Glee” TV show; more support from parents and other volunteers; shows with large casts; and double-casting some roles to increase participation.

Carly DeCock, 15, of Upper St. Clair, said many friends who play sports and come from different backgrounds are in Upper St. Clair High School's “All Shook Up,” which runs from March 7 to 9 and 13 to 15.

“I feel like we all come together because we love this show,” which is based on Elvis Presley's music, said DeCock, who plays rebellious teen Lorraine.

Chichi Kabungo, 17, a Baldwin senior from Whitehall, runs track and field and plays volleyball. He said two fellow students persuaded him to audition for “Hairspray” last year.

“It made me realize that when you (see) new things to try, don't be afraid,” Kabungo said. This year, he was selected for the part of the Bishop in Baldwin High School's “Shrek,” which runs Thursday night through Sunday..

Tony Melillo, the director, said Baldwin will compete in the over $40,000 budget category of the Kelly Awards.

Baldwin-Whitehall Friends of the Theater Arts, a community organization, raises money each year for the high school musical, said spokeswoman Renee Stockey. Students sell ads to help with expenses.

As to schools choosing larger-scale musicals, “We have 200 kids in the drama club,” said Moon Area teacher and musicals director Laura Mitchell.

“About 120 Moon Area students auditioned for 60 cast roles” in the high school's upcoming musical “Grease,” which runs March 20 through 23, she said. Mitchell looks for musicals with larger casts, and varies choices every four years to include a classic musical, a Disney musical and a more contemporary musical.

Woodland Hills' “Sweeney Todd” will have a cast of 50 students, some of whom share roles, Crone said. The show runs from April 24 to 26 and May 1 to 3.

Because of high interest in shows at Upper St. Clair, Megan Jones, 16, a junior, shares the “All Shook Up” lead role of Natalie with senior Claire Stoller. Natalie is Jones's first lead role.

“She's definitely a big help,” Jones said of Stoller. “I hope I can do the same” as a senior.

At Upper St. Clair, everyone who wants to participate in this year's musical is able to in some way, said co-producer Tim Wagner.

“We have 90 in the cast, more in the makeup and stage crews, 75 to 100 in the orchestra and 15 to 20 ushers,” Wagner said.

A team of 20 to 25 students at Upper St. Clair works with adult counterparts on the musical. Upper St. Clair calls on in-house and outside consultants, including a director who teaches at a local college and a choreographer who operates a local dance studio.

Wagner said he didn't have budget numbers and wouldn't disclose costs for consultants, but said the district pays stipends on par with athletic coaches. Students in the musical pay fees to participate, and sell program ads to help defray costs, he said.

Sewickley Academy supports its theater department and doesn't require students to raise money.

The private school in Edgeworth is offering free tickets to the senior school's “Curtains,” running Thursday through Saturday, because “arts and culture are imperative to a well-rounded society,” said Matthew Griffin, artistic director of the school's theater department.

Sewickley Academy senior Kate Athol, 18, of Sewickley, who appears in “Curtains,” said musicals are important for high school students. “It is an opportunity for us all to come together and be a part of something bigger than ourselves,” she said.

Schools are paying more to light stages. Mitchell, the Moon Area director, is spending $1,000 on a rock-and-roll lighting design for “Grease.”

Some schools, such as Woodland Hills, require musical staffs to check students' grades for eligibility. “Most either maintain their grades, or (grades) go up because of the discipline of time,” Crone said. Also, musicals help schools retain students who otherwise might leave for charter schools, he said.

Leah Prestogeorge, 16, a Woodland Hills sophomore from Wilkins, said she had heard great things about the school's shows. “I knew I would get a great experience out of it,” she said.

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer. Staff writer Adam Brandolph can be reached at

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