Wilbur Cross Goes ... Back To High School?

Brian Slattery PhotosTwo people go to their high school reunion. Could be 15 years, 20 years, since they saw each other last. They strike up a conversation. Start to hit it off. They share a dance. A connection is forming. But they never dated in high school. Didn’t have a crush on each other. As it turns out, they didn’t know each other well at all. Which is why, when they sing to each other, they don’t sing to each other about the good old days.

“I’m glad you didn’t know me in high school,” they sing.

The Lights Up Drama Club’s production of Is There Life After High School?, which runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Wilbur Cross High School, marks the school’s first full stage production since 2016’s Hairspray.

The school’s previous drama teacher left in the middle of the last school year, facing charges of sexually assaulting a student. She had started at Wilbur Cross as a volunteer in 2013.

The drama program needed to be rebuilt. When the position of drama teacher opened up for the beginning of this year, Salvatore DeLucia jumped at it.

“It’s like a lifelong dream for me,” DeLucia said. “It’s the highlight of my career so far.”

He’d been teaching English for 12 years in New Haven schools, first at Truman School, then Bishop Woods, and finally at Wilbur Cross. “Some of the kids I have, I’ve taught them from seventh grade until now,” DeLucia said. “When you get to spend multiple years with these kids, you get to see the impact you have on them — and the impact they have on you.”

DeLucia began by assembling his “dream team”: Co-Director and Producer Heather Bazinet, Musical Director Matt Durland, Graphic and Scenic Artist Samara Vaiuso, and Choreographer and Lighting Director Jennifer Kaye. Putting the production together was a three-month undertaking, with students putting in hours a day. “They gave up winter break to rehearse,” DeLucia said. “They worked hard. They came to play.” And it has paid off. “I feel like everything we touch is turning to gold. There is so much talent” at the high school, and “it’s a privilege to guide these performers. They make me better on a daily basis.”

With parts for nine leading roles and an ensemble of 12, Is There Life After High School? is the right choice for showing off just how deep the school’s talent pool is. The musical, with music and lyrics by Craig Carnelia and book by Jeffrey Kindley, follows nine adults as they look back on their high school experiences and consider how much has changed — and how much hasn’t. The first act follows an ingenious structure in which the speaking characters are always adults looking back, some with fondness (“I wish I could do it all over again”), some not (“I wish I never had to do it in the first place.”)

Their unvarnished trip down memory lane involves everything from recalling a yearbook snub (“what bothers me isn’t what she wrote. What bothers me is that I’m 28 years old and I still care”) to the first thrills of sexual awakening, of being noticed by someone you’re interested in. A kinetic dance number centers around a group of friends who used to get drunk on the weekends; the narrator remembers how little it took for them to get their buzzes on, and also how, now that he’s in his 30s, it just doesn’t feel as good as it used to.

In one particularly affecting scene, two narrators remember getting into a fight after school. They both recall how much they seriously wanted to hurt each other — until things really did get serious, and both were a little frightened of how much pain they could inflict, and feel. Behind them, the fight itself plays out in choreographed slow motion. The punches may be slow, but you still feel them.

The first act ends with a legitimate showstopper, “Diary of a Homecoming Queen,” in which the memory of a triumphant coronation quickly turns bittersweet. “The marching band was playing and the kids all threw confetti,” the former queen sings. “I feel like I still have some in my hair.” She sings it over and over again, like a mantra that she knows is losing its effectiveness. It’s a memory that the older woman has worn too smooth.

It all sets the stage for the second act, which finds everyone back at school for a reunion decades later. Some return in triumph. Some in defeat. Some can’t wait to see everyone. Others question why they showed up as soon as they walk in the door. Is there a chance for another spark with that old flame? Can some old grudges feel as fresh as ever? What does high school mean, decades later?

The entire cast shines throughout as they dive into these questions. Melissa Cisija’s powerful voice fills the auditorium, and she knows how to hit an audience with the full emotional weight of what she’s singing about. Emanuel Gonzalez switches from effortlessly charming to more than a little threatening and back again from scene to scene.

Erian Diaz is delightful as a man who comes to his reunion feeling like he’s the only one who’s being truthful with himself about not enjoying himself. Cisija and Brianna Chance hit home as two women who were best of friends in high school and find that they can’t quite reconnect. Brandon Oliveras and Catherine Sigg convey all the maturity of two people who meet at the reunion as strangers and leave as perhaps something more.

And Ty Scurry ably carries the weight as a man who looks back on a harrowing memory of almost not quite surviving high school, and drawing strength from his survival.

There is, of course, life after high school. But this ensemble production, full of small, surprising revelations, reminds us that it isn’t quite what we thought it would be. For a theater program under new direction, it’s a triumphant return to the stage.

Is There Life After High School? runs at Wilbur Cross High School, 181 Mitchell Dr., March 2, 3, and 4. All shows are at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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