‘Is There Life After High School’ features lovely performances but faces challenges

Iowa City Community Theatre Presents: Is There Life After High School?

Johnson County Fairgrounds — through Jan. 20

Jeff Mead and ensemble members in ‘Is There Life After High School?’ at Iowa City Community Theatre — Emily McKnight/ICCT

“You survive—but you don’t forget”—a chilling phrase that rings true for anyone that attended high school no matter how positive or negative their experience. Admittedly, I’ve used a similar phrase when talking to my friends about my life in high school. It wasn’t that all of my high school days were unbearable, but I certainly didn’t escape ridicule, bullying and failures.

Despite some of the negative memories I have of high school, I still reminisce with friends old and new. And it seems to be a pervasive bonding experience for the majority of people I meet. People love to talk about their past, especially high school. So I wasn’t surprised to find out that there was a musical made about that very bonding experience.

Presented by Iowa City Community Theatre, Is There Life After High School?, by Jeffrey Kindley (book) and Craig Carnelia (music and lyrics), is a musical of carefully woven monologues told from the perspective of adults that both loved and hated high school. As a result, many of the characters are played by multiple actors and aren’t always named. It’s loosely based on the Ralph Keyes novel of the same name.

This production marks the second time that ICCT has brought the show to the stage. The first was in 1995 as a contest production, which won several awards and featured some of the area’s best talent of the time. Jeff Mead, who was in the band of the 1995 production, returns as director, actor and musical director. This show also marks his directorial debut with ICCT.

The concept of the show is smart — presenting seemingly disjointed stories that took place at the same time and revealing the people and events that connect those stories. What’s more, we get to see two sides of some of the issues presented. For instance, we get two different perspectives on a fight that broke out between two boys who were constantly in competition with one another. However, as far as plots go, this one simple-minded; the concept poorly executed by the creators. It’s a show about reliving memories, and the writing is subpar.

The audience is introduced to the framework of the show with the opening number, “The Kid Inside,” which previews the cast of characters to come and the stories to be unveiled. We meet a homecoming queen who never became much after high school, a group of women talking about their first experience with a boy, a girl with a positive attitude that was attributed to her love of cheerleading, a man who was rejected by the popular girl because he was a nerd and a bully who lacks perspective on his past actions.

Between these monologues sit group musical numbers and poignant solos. These scenes build to the culmination of the show — a dreaded reunion — where many of the characters are forced to deal with their high school “demons.” Just when you think the show has come to a close, the audience is hit with one final monologue. I won’t spoil it here — it must be seen in person to feel it’s full weight — but it’s perfectly placed and deeply moving.

Overall, I enjoyed the show. The set and lighting design, also created by Mead, were appropriate given the material and style. In particular, I loved how the set included everything that was necessary to the show. There wasn’t a need for a scene change because there was a classroom, locker room and gymnasium in the same space. This kept distractions at a minimum and improved pacing.

The band was stellar — each musician propelled the show forward with sass, finesse and passion. They also deserve major kudos for being so attentive to the cast — there were several times where the actors got ahead of the music and, because these musicians have honed their craft, they were able to adjust with ease.

Angela McConville in ‘Is There Life After High School?’ at Iowa City Community Theatre — Emily McKnight/ICCT

Of the actors, a special shout-out goes to Mead (who also performed in the show) and Angela McConville. While I enjoyed the work of the ensemble during larger group numbers, these two shined.

I could tell this was a passion project for Mead. His intensity and honesty throughout the production caught my eye. There were two moments in particular that stood out — the first during his comedic solo and the other while he was portraying a character in a drunken stupor. He was committed all the way to the end. Though, I do believe he may have taken on too much with this production. Wearing so many hats may have contributed to some of the problems in the show.

McConville, who I have had the pleasure of watching in several productions, tugged at my heartstrings with her performance. The two ballads that she performed were so sincere that I found myself choking back tears.

However, there were some pitfalls in this production. The ensemble was guilty of committing novice mistakes — not standing in the light, missing lyrics and forgetting when to exit and enter. Every cast member seemed to fumble in some way, which was surprising given how long some of these actors have been performing.

In addition, I was troubled by the number of times some of the actors changed costumes. I noticed that one or two of the actors only changed once or twice, while others had over seven changes. It was quite distracting and prevented me from staying invested in the story.

Equally distracting was the blocking. I understood that I would be hearing a lot of monologues — which often means the actor is standing in one place for a long period of time — but there were many moments in this show where actors were standing in a straight line. When it comes to blocking, this is my biggest pet peeve. I was also confused as to why some of the actors waited so long to make their entrances after a fellow actor would finish their monologue. This made the show drag significantly.

I get the sense that several of the actors didn’t have enough time with the material. It seemed as though this production barely got on its feet — missed harmonies, major line flubs and lack of character development made this apparent.

I did some digging and realized that the original cast was significantly larger at one point. There were six more cast members when the cast was announced some months ago. It occurred to me that ICCT didn’t get enough community support when it came to putting this show up. Half the battle with shows is getting cast members to commit — a challenging feat for a director making his debut.

Had the cast been able to draw from those additional ensemble members, the aforementioned trouble spots could have been avoided. With that, I have to say bravo to Mead and the rest of the ensemble for making it work. It’s no small feat, and they put on a show despite roadblocks.

Overall, Life After High School is relatable, moving and hilarious. There are messages in this show that anyone can connect to. The songs resonate despite their simplicity. The monologues are all too true for some of us. And you can’t help but love it for all of its faults.

Life After High School runs through Jan. 20; tickets are $11-19.

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