Dallas seems to be counting on his audiences to fill in the blanks with memories of the movie, and no doubt many members of the audiences will do just that.
Preacher (Sean Patrick Thomas) and his buddy Cochise (Faruq Tauheed Jenkins) spend much of their time at Cooley Vo-Tech High School in Chicago in 1964 cutting classes. They play basketball, crash parties, shoot craps, con prostitutes, try to make it with their girlfriends (with varying success) and get into fights -- lots of fights.
As TV Guide says, in its blurbs for Marx Brothers movies, "hijinks ensue."
In adapting the much-loved 1975 movie Cooley High for the stage at the Arts Bank, Freedom Repertory Theatre director Walter Dallas has turned it into a musical, moving the soundtrack of '60s Motown hits from the background to the foreground (or at least to the middle ground). Students are as likely to start dancing in the hallways and classrooms as they are in Fame. On two occasions -- when Preach's mother (Mattilyn C. Rochester) tells him to respect his mother, and when his history teacher (Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.) tells him to believe in himself -- the songs (new ones, written by music directors Cecelia Ann Birt and Evan Solot) function as they do in traditional musical comedy. Most of the other numbers are Motown standards, sung by a vocal quintet called A Perfect Blend, who drift in and out of the action in their evening gowns, dinner jackets and sequined bow ties.
Occasionally -- only occasionally -- a character will burst into a Top 40 song: for example, when the proprietor of a luncheonette (Joilet Harris), meat cleaver in hand, starts singing "Respect" with a chorus of schoolgirls as her backup singers; or when Preach's new love interest (Danielle G. Herbert) suddenly starts singing "Gee Whiz." At such moments, Cooley High takes on a bizarre postmodern charm, playing stylistic games with the musical genre.
Otherwise, Cooley High stays as close in form as it can to a movie. Aided by T. Greenfield's curved rolling wall panels and projections, Dallas often creates a kind of cinematic fluidity, most notably in the climatic fatal confrontation on the El (the second such confrontation, after Avenue X at the Wilma, in Philadelphia theater this season). But in too many sequences -- a visit to the zoo, a joyride that turns into a comic car chase, and a famous fight scene in a movie house -- the stage action serves only as an allusion to the original, a set of references or quotations. Dallas seems to be counting on his audiences to fill in the blanks with memories of the movie; and no doubt many members of the audiences will do just that.
If you saw and loved the movie, the stage version will (I imagine) tap your memories and live up to your expectations. If not -- well, you can always listen to Harris, Herbert, A Perfect Blend and the others singing those great songs.
The delightful choreography, danced by an enormous company of young actors and even younger Freedom Theatre School trainees, is by Patricia Scott Hobbs. I would have loved even more of it.
-- Cary M. Mazer