By Ken Trainor
I dreamed a dream of days gone by
When hope was high and life worth living
Of all the traditions in your average American community, none is more poignant than the high school musical — which partly explains the popularity of Glee (and is the only possible explanation for the popularity of Miley Cyrus).
Boundless energy and enthusiasm channeled into an art form designed to give full-throated expression to all our dreams and longing.
But Oak Park is not your average American community by any stretch of the imagination. Your average American high school puts on Seussical: The Musical. OPRF High School puts on Les Miserables.
Which they did the last two weekends. It would be hard to exaggerate the sheer unvarnished brass it must have taken for Michelle Bayer and her cohorts to attempt a high school production of Les Miz. Yet there they were last Friday night, all 108 cast members (plus crew, plus pit orchestra), decked out in period costume, belting out number after number and doing each one justice.
Justice, of course, is the operative word in this operatic musical. There is the obsessive, letter-of-the-law quest for justice embodied by Inspector Javert, which succeeds only in upholding and perpetuating injustice; in direct conflict with the high-minded rebellion of angry men (and child and woman) at the barricade. And both are in conflict with the personal and interpersonal hunger and thirst for justice that characterizes the odyssey of Jean Valjean.
Big themes, big numbers, big set, big production.
And big audience. If you haven't been to the high school for some time, there is simply no way to brace yourself for this solar flare of unleashed energy. In spite of having been through my own adolescence, in spite of accompanying my son through his, after more than a decade away from OPRF, it seems unfathomable that human beings can live at this level of excitability without exploding — and that was just the audience before the lights went down.
But I appreciated the reminder. With a high school board election looming, I wish every voter in District 200 could experience this power surge.
The arts help channel some of it. We used to have a reporter who would say, "Whenever I come out of an OPRF Gospel Choir concert, I feel like saying, 'We should just throw money at this institution. It's worth whatever we have to pay.'" I'm guessing most voters, even those who think we're already throwing money at the school, would be mollified after seeing this production of Les Miz.
What impresses first is the diversity. All of the lead male roles (except for the bad guy) are ably filled by African Americans, which was a refreshing change.
If diversity weren't enough, there was also plenty of talent. The ability was unmistakable, particularly John Clay III as Valjean. The soul of a Broadway veteran, it seems, has somehow transmigrated to the body of a high school senior. Where Hugh Jackman noticeably strains to hit the high notes of "Bring Him Home" in the recent film, Clay pulls it off with evident ease.
His stage presence and poise match his voice. Taking a character through an entire adult life span would challenge a mature 30-something, but a high school senior? Actually all the voices were strong, right down to the ensemble (though the mics only worked sporadically).
From polished productions to good old high school try, what musical theater does best is chronicle the hopes, ideals and dreams of its characters as they navigate the pitfalls and upswings of life. And at the high school level, it does so with hopeful, idealistic dreamers whose adulthood stretches before them, yet to be determined. As an adult spectator with more rear view than road ahead, I find such rites of passage profoundly moving.
Whether these soon-to-be adults eventually fulfill their promise, settle comfortably into a niche, or aim too high and come up short, they won't soon forget this night, this production, these fellow cast members, this audience erupting in full, hormonal acclaim after each number.
Meanwhile, the younger members of the audience this night are busy conceiving their own dreams — like the pre-teen Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the late 1960s, watching her older sister perform on this very stage — thinking to themselves, "I can do that."
While youth looks forward to all that life has to offer and all they have to offer life, more than a few adults, I would guess, are casting back to their own "once upon a time." Few of us would willingly return to the emotional maelstrom of adolescence and yet … and yet … every once in a very long while, it is so welcome to be reminded.
Perhaps some of us would be tempted to go back for just one more day.
And maybe one day more.