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California Area baseball star also shines on stage

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 7:03 p.m.
California Area High School senior Michael Luketich rehearses his dance number for the school's production of 'The Pajama Game.'
California Area's Michael Luketich batted .457 for the Trojans’ baseball team and was named to the Class A All-WPIAL team last spring.

You've heard this line before: “A friend of a friend …” For California Area High School senior Michael Luketich, that “friend of a friend” story rings true.

Luketich tells and retells the story of that proverbial “friend of a friend” who was in California's musical when he was in second grade, chuckling at the memory. “They needed some younger children for the musical, specifically a boy and a girl, so I tried out and received the role of Jerome in ‘South Pacific.'”

That was Luketich's first of 10 musicals at the school.

“When I was in third grade they did not need any children,” he added, “but I have been in every musical since fourth grade.”

This year he is one of three featured dancers in the song “Steam Heat,” from the 1954 musical “The Pajama Game,” which will be presented on California's stage Feb 27, 28 and March 1.

Claudia Bennett, in her third year as director of California Area's musicals, is coordinating at least a subtle “tribute to a beloved son,” she said.

“Several weeks ago we realized that our stage set for ‘The Pajama Game' is peppered with items that have been used in other plays, so we are going to make certain that there's at least one item from each of Michael's plays on our ‘Pajama Game' stage. It's our private tribute.”

At the same time, cast members and graduates are sure to relate their favorite Luketich story, including Bennett's: “It was little Michael's white dress pants that someone grabbed to smother a backstage fire during ‘Mame' several years ago,” she recalled. “Michael's mom had to buy him a new pair before the next night's performance, but it all worked out perfectly.”

While Luketich's role in “The Pajama Game” is primarily as a dancer, he was a member of the barbershop quartet in “The Music Man” in 2012. But even though he does no dancing off the stage, “Michael has marvelous coordination and he masters the dance steps quickly,” continued Bennett, who wears multiple hats as high school librarian, journalism and gifted teacher, and yearbook, student newspaper and Drama Club sponsor.

“His performance is a pleasure to watch. He makes it look so easy. Michael has grown tremendously, and he has a serious work ethic. He's very attentive and polite, careful with details and deadlines. Michael has always taken direction well and is a quick study. When he steps onto stage (following a baseball workout) during a rehearsal he's able to catch up with day's progress in just a few minutes. His coordination is top-notch, both on stage and on the baseball field.”

Maria Gismondi, a featured dancer when she was a student at California Area and now the musical's primary choreographer, explained that “The Pajama Game” was renowned choreographer and showman Bob Fosse's first musical, and “Steam Heat” is considered a signature piece that gathers Fosse's distinctive use of jazz hands, rolled shoulders and turned-in knees.

Watching Luketich on stage, Gismondi, who spent her high school afternoons dancing with the Pittsburgh Ballet Company, referred to him as having “always been an asset to our casts. As one of our more athletic performers, I could count on him for big lifts and tricks in partnering sections for ensemble numbers, and he is always reliable and hardworking. This year he really surprised me during auditions with his quick grasp of the essence of Fosse-style dancing. I chose him as a featured dancer because of the tremendous growth I've seen in him: he is braver, less self-conscious, and more confident as a mover, and he has become increasingly adept at picking up the choreography. It is a pleasure to work with him our audiences will be delighted to see what he's bringing to the stage this year.”

Luketich described his dancing in “Steam Heat” somewhat differently.

“We do some crazy moves,” he laughed. “These are not typical dance moves and there are some weird movements, but I'm having fun doing the dance and the musicals have always been fun.”

For Luketich, musicals serve as a transition from being a member of the Trojans golf team in the fall to member of the school's baseball team in the spring A four-year member of both programs, Luketich was the Trojans' No. 1 golfer this past fall and finished 18th at the WPIAL championships. Last spring, he batted .457 in the No. 2 slot in the lineup for the Trojans' baseball team and was named to the Class A All-WPIAL team. Defensively, Luketich will play second base and left field this spring. In the classroom, Luketich is a straight-A student and, along with several other straight-A classmates, ranked at the top of the senior class.

Participating in baseball workouts prior to daily rehearsals for “The Pajama Game,” Luketich balances his time as best as possible, he said.

“I'm able to balance my time between baseball and the musical and still have time for any homework or study for tests.”

Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.