PG West: Lincoln Park’s ‘Shall We Dance’ looks more like a college production than a high school program
March 11, 2010
By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Rumors of the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center kingdom in Midland have been filtering back to Pittsburgh for some time, so in pursuit of my long-range impossible dream of seeing a musical in every high school in southwest Pennsylvania, I hitched up my criticmobile and set forth.
The trip from Pittsburgh is noteworthy, zipping past the airport and eventually along the banks of the Ohio across from the soaring Shippingport power plant, which, glittering at night with what look like giant fairy lights, wreathed in clouds both man- and god-made, looks like 1950s sci-fi.
The destination is also impressive - a $31 million performing arts center and school complex with a 750-seat state-of-the-art theater at its core. (There’s a metaphor there about the nuclear core at Shippingport, but let it wait.) Incongruously, you park in a jam-packed lot behind a Co-Go’s, then cross the street, feeling like Dorothy and friends approaching the emerald green promised land.
The lobby looks like every high school, but this is no generic school auditorium, with lousy sightlines and deadening, crowd-control aisles. It’s a real theater, where touring shows and the Pittsburgh Symphony would be at home (as they are), complete with professional lighting and sound.
Best of all is what’s on stage, a high school production that felt more like a pretty good college. “Shall We Dance,” which played to packed houses last weekend, was a slick, eye-filling revue. Conceived by Stephen Catanzarite, the arts center’s managing director, it’s made up of substantial excerpts from seven Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.
It was not, however, the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School’s spring musical, as I gradually realized as the performers soared through the air, wordless. Unwittingly, I had taken myself to their dance program.
The spring musical, “Bye Bye Birdie,” doesn’t come until May 14-23. You might make plans to see it; you might see me there, too.
Lincoln Park is not your average high school but one of the waves of the future - a 500-student school (grades 8-12) in a depressed steel town which had only 50 high school students when Midland High School closed in 1985.
Conceived by Nick Trombetta, the charter school draws students from near and far, and the building also houses the Pennsylvania Cyber School, which boasts some 9,000 enrollments from around the state.
The high school offers many productions each year in the main theater and its 175-seat black box - two musicals, two dance programs, two dramas and lots of music programs.
There are actually two Lincoln Parks, the charter school and the performing arts center, but both staff and facilities are intertwined in a way no one-time visitor can quite untangle.
Not a theater critic, anyway. So back to “Shall We Dance?,” which is actually produced by the center, involving both the school and the Henry Mancini Arts Academy (an after-school program like those of Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and Pittsburgh Musical Theater).
The show began with a bang, the “Shall We Dance” number from “The King and I,” then moved on to substantial excerpts from “Carousel,” “State Fair,” “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma!” - that was Act 1 - and then “The King and I,” “Cinderella” and “The Sound of Music.”
It was like a buffet table laden with only your favorite dishes. In my case, that means dessert after dessert after dessert.
In general, each show was represented by a series of “best bit” epitomes of famous numbers. It’s hard to choose, but my two favorites were “South Pacific” and “The King and I.” The latter was unusual in presenting just one number, the delicious “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” choreographed by Jennifer Roe Verba.
As with the rest of the sequences, the lack of sets was compensated for by the vivid traditional costumes of Kim Brown (Spotlight Costumes) and the fluid lighting of Andrew David Ostrowski. Kudos especially to Patricia Adams’ vivid, focused Eliza.
Like most of the other segments, the “South Pacific” sequence, choreographed by Ms. Verba and Gavan Pamer, was a précis of some eight or nine famous numbers. I didn’t take good notes because I was too mesmerized by Amber Nicole’s Nellie Forbush, who took the stage with such easy confidence and fresh, corn-fed, gee-whiz presence, that you couldn’t take your eyes off her. She’s not even a senior, but they tell me she can also act and sing, so remember that name.
But none of the seven segments was dominated by its leads. In contrast to other high schools, even the best (I’m not going to be foolish enough to list a few and leave some out), the ensemble was continually compelling, both as a unit and individually, showing spunk and skill.
The worst you could say is that, in the show’s focus on dance, some characters weren’t really acted. Some in the “Oklahoma!” excerpts, for example, were clearly dancers, not characters who could also dance. But you wouldn’t say this about those in “The King and I,” or the nurses in “South Pacific,” or many others.
Four male alumni of the school returned to dance leads. In its relative lack of male performers, Lincoln Park is not so unlike other high schools after all.
Ms. Verba did much of the choreography. Overseeing the whole was director Mr. Pamer, a well-known Pittsburgh performer who is both artistic director of the Lincoln Park center and director of theater for the school. Other choreographers were Kenneth Nickel, Krista Shovlin and Mindy Silver. The accompanying music was professional piano and percussion, led by Katheen Billie, music director and arranger.
By now, you can write my nuclear energy metaphor yourself: in the Ohio valley, it isn’t just Shippingport that has a powerful, glowing core.
Like every high school musical, Lincoln Park’s show also had a feeling of camaraderie, exemplified in a curtain call with lead couples from the seven segments twirling to the title song, and then a final image of the whole cast in a mélange of costumes, a warm image of the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein - and the future of the American musical.
For a full list of high school musicals in Western Pennsylvania, go to the high school musical site at www.post-gazette.com/theater.
John Heller/Post-Gazette, Students on stage during ‘Shall We Dance.’
About Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School
Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School (www.lppacs.org) is a Pennsylvania public school providing a state-approved academic program and pre-professional training for grades 7-12 in music, theater, dance, creative writing, health science arts and media arts. The school enrolls students from more than 65 surrounding school districts.
Media Contact: Fred Miller, communications coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org