Friday, March 27, 2009

Growing Up In America

My high school days are long gone. Yet, whenever I see a movie or stage production which paints high school as one of the coolest, most wonderful times of our lives, I have to sit back and wonder if I grew up in an alternate universe.

While high school was a period of tremendous growth, it was also filled with tremendous anxiety. In October of 1962 (during the Cuban Missile Crisis) tensions were so high that I bought a standing room ticket for a Saturday matinee of Camelot with a cast headed by William Squire, Kathryn Grayson, and Arthur Treacher. With the melodramatic sense of impending doom befitting an aspiring theater queen, I was determined to die in a Broadway theater if missiles rained down on New York. Years later, in Terrence McNally's farce The Ritz, Googie Gomez pretty well summed up my experience that afternoon.  

"Camelot?  Dat show was a piece of chit!"

High school required all kinds of face-saving maneuvers, some made worse by the fact that my father taught at the same school I was attending.  When I first applied for a student job at the school's switchboard, the secretary took one look at me and squealed "Little Georgie Heymont -- I've known you since you were knee high to a grasshopper!" When my English teacher asked us to write a profile of someone, I wrote a pretty scathing portrayal of the principal's secretary. I quickly learned that there could be a downside to one's creative writing skills.

When, under the leadership of Albert Shanker, New York's schoolteachers went on strike, I was too naive to understand why my father insisted that I go to school even as he walked a picket line for the United Federation of Teachers. I remember being at the school's switchboard on November 22, 1963, when word came that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Mixed messages fueled by homoerotic desires led to other embarrassing moments. Once, when a girl in my class turned me down for a date, I asked if her mother (who worked at the school and wore as much makeup as a drag queen) might like to go out with me instead. Constantly staring with gape-jawed envy at the basketball team's blondest, most handsome star as he doffed his jock while standing next to my locker turned out not to be such a great idea. And then, of course, there was the constant embarrassment of being frighteningly square at a time when all the supposedly cool kids were smoking cigarettes, experimenting with marijuana, and attending S.D.S. rallies.

Unlike the lean and muscled athletes who could easily shimmy up the ropes during gym class, I huddled with a roving pack of pudgy Jewish honor students who kept moving around the perimeter of the gym (trying to look busy after the teacher had taken attendance). Like most kids, my high school years were filled with moments of painful naivete, searing confusion, misplaced enthusiasm, and personal humiliation. I did not have the social skills that allowed others to sail through those years on a cloud of popularity.  Nor did I possess the amazing dexterity demonstrated by The Ross Sisters (Aggie, Maggie & Elmira) in this astonishing clip from 1944's Broadway Rhythm:


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Those tortured teenage high school years have been the source material for stage and movie musicals ranging from Hairspray to Cry-Baby, from Bye Bye Birdie to Disney's High School Musical franchise. But high school isn't always a barrel of laughs. The experience can vary dramatically depending on your parents' income, the condition of your school, the stability of your home life, and whether you live in the suburbs or an inner city.

One of the more sobering documentaries to be shown at this month's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival focuses on the efforts of a first-year Chinese-American high school principal heading up the creation of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. The South Bronx is arguably one of the toughest neighborhoods in the United States, surrounded by poverty and violence. 

Following a successful career in retail as an executive for Saks Fifth Avenue, Edward Tom realized that his work was not giving him much fulfillment and that the material goals he had set for himself seemed quite ridiculous. After gaining his accreditation and being assigned to a school with only 107 students (who were "born into hardship but rising to excellence"), Tom found a challenge he could really sink his teeth into.

One of the youngest principals in the New York City public school system, he now stands outside the school each morning to greet his students by name as they arrive for classes. The Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (BCSM) is part of the New York City school system's ongoing experiment with the small schools movement, which allows minority and low-income students to get the personal encouragement, teaching support and tough love they need in order to enter college.


Making his debut as a director/producer, Christopher Wong has crafted a powerful documentary about the struggles to encourage disadvantaged youth to want to succeed. With major funding from the Sundance Institute and San Francisco's Center for Asian American Media,  Whatever It Takes gets up close and personal with sullen teens who think they can get a semester's worth of failing grades and still go on to college, families with histories of drug abuse and domestic violence, as well as exhausted teachers who welcomed a tough professional challenge but finally succumbed to the realization that the commute was killing them.  In his director's statement, Wong notes that:
"When this documentary project first came to my attention in August of 2005, I immediately focused upon the school's principal (Edward Tom), knowing that his larger-than-life persona and visionary leadership style would not only make a huge impression upon his students, but would also come across well on film.

Since Edward Tom and I had been friends for almost 10 years, the production was given complete access to the entire school -- every meeting, conversation, and classroom was open to our camera crew.  Most importantly, the principal assured me that neither he nor anyone else would try to influence the outcome or tone of the film. In addition, our crew was also granted permission to bring our cameras into many of the students' homes, which made a tremendous difference in our understanding of who these kids were and what they were up against.

One hears so many negative stories about the South Bronx, but it's hard to know the extent of the problems until you actually witness them up close.  At the same time, seeing all the challenges in person makes us realize the incredible resilience and strength inherent in each of the characters in our film.

Thus, the question of whether a dedicated team of administrators, teachers, and students can prevail against the harsh realities of the South Bronx has become the central tension of my documentary.  Ultimately, I see this film as a miracle captured on tape -- a compelling mixture of dynamic individuals, life-changing events, and the passage of time, resulting in new dreams where none existed before."
You won't find a soft, sentimental core at the heart of Wong's powerful documentary. Instead, Whatever It Takes focuses on a small group of education professionals battling years of dysfunctional family life and the dynamics of a burned-out ghetto in their effort to give local children an opportunity to succeed. Here's the trailer:



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As one heads out to suburbia, the demographics and lifestyle take on a much different look. Traveling back in time to the summer of 1987, Greg Mottola's Adventureland (which opens in theaters on April 3rd) centers on the cheesy summer life of teenagers working in an amusement park where kids puke on a regular basis, girlfriends who swear to keep a secret for you promptly turn around and betray your confidence, and a best friend's idea of a great laugh is to punch you in the balls.

Shooting a film based on life in a summer amusement park is easier said than done. Corporate entities like Six Flags are probably not going to want to insure such a project.  Most amusement parks have undergone extensive modernization (with the addition of new attractions and videogame arcades). Too many wooden rollercoasters have been replaced with computerized thrill rides. So where does one go to find vintage rides in an authentic, if sadder-but-wiser kind of amusement park environment? The outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home to Kennywood.


The plot of Adventureland can be summed up in two words: shit happens. James Brennan was planning to spend his summer vacation traveling through Europe on the money his parents had promised him for his graduation present. But after his alcoholic father (Jack Gilpin) got downsized from a lucrative executive position, the kid's last summer vacation before entering college suddenly started to look a whole lot bleaker. When young Brennan's earnest job applications forced him to acknowledge that he had no marketable job skills, there was only one place left to get a summer job.


Adventureland will not change your life, nor will it provide you with any deep insights into a young man's teenaged angst. The movie is filled with suburban potheads, teenage stupidity, sexual infidelity, horny adolescents, too much booze, and the sorry results of what happens to people who eat a rancid corn dog before boarding the Tilt-A-Whirl. There's a great score, with more than 40 songs from the 1980s to provide "ambience."

While Ryan Reynolds glides through the film as an oily suburban mechanic/wannabe lothario, the movie really belongs to young Jesse Eisenberg, who stars as James Brennan. Eisenberg scored strongly in The Squid and the Whale and was recently signed to play poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings. He is a talented young actor whose laid-back style convincingly conveys an intense naievete combined with surprising emotional depth. 

Supporting roles feature Wendy Malick as his mother, Matt Bush as the ball-busting Frigo, Kristen Stewart as Em, Margarita Levieva as the park's notorious cockteaser, and Martin Starr as the intellectually stifled Joel. Other adults in key roles include Mary Birdsong as Em's stepmother and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the ridiculous husband and wife owner/operators of Adventureland.

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Finally, we come to Grease, the 1972 musical whose latest national tour recently arrived at the Golden Gate Theater. Set in 1959, as students return to Rydell High School, Grease conjures up the cartoonlike visions of suburbia at the tail end of the Eisenhower era that have become familiar to us from films like Edward Scissorhands, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Pleasantville.  Written and composed by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the show's original Broadway run lasted for 3,388 performances. The 1978 film starred John Travolta as Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John as Sandy Olsen (the character's name is Sandy Dumbrowski in the stage version). The list of famous actors who, at point or another, have performed in a cast of Grease, is jaw-dropping.

Whether from the stage or film version, many of Grease's songs ("Summer Nights," "Freddy My Love," "Beauty School Dropout," "You're The One That I Want," and "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee") have become popular classics. The show has a reputation as an energetic crowd pleaser, whether the audience is filled with teenagers or aging boomers filled with nostalgia.

Photo by: Joan Marcus

This new production, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, certainly doesn't lack for energy. With a cast practically jumping out of Martin Pakledinaz's costumes as they romp all around Derek McLane's sets, the performance is loud, proud, intensely aerobic and astonishingly vapid. As appealing as Eric Schneider may be as Danny Zuko, Dominic Fortuna's Vince Fontaine (who warmed up the opening night audience before the show) actually made a bigger impression. Emily Padgett was appealing as Sandy Dumbrowski while American Idol winner Taylor Hicks made the most of his cameo appearance as the Teen Angel.

Emily Padgett and Eric Schneider (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Nevertheless, I had the strangest sensation while watching this production of Grease. While numbers like Greased Lightenin', Mooning, and We Go Together were performed with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, the overall effect was oddly mechanical -- as if one were watching an industrial show that none of the cast members really believed in. Although there were some nice bits of staging, few members of the cast were relating to each other onstage. The strongest contribution to the evening actually came from Kenneth Posner, the production's lighting director.

Photo by: Joan Marcus

As we were leaving the Golden Gate Theatre and walking toward MUNI, my theater-going companion made a particularly astute observation. Whereas most large theatrical productions are greeted with standing ovations at their final curtain, no one stood up at the end of the opening night performance of Grease

It wasn't because they were all waiting to see if Taylor Hicks would perform a solo from his new album (he did). And it wasn't because the audience was so different from the usual Shorenstein subscribers. No one felt compelled to rise to their feet and reward the performers with an ovation -- not even on the show's opening night!  As a result, I couldn't help but wonder if this production might have been a whole lot more fun in rehearsal than when the show was finally frozen.

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