By Johanna Staples-Ager
Let’s just get it out there right up front: Berkeley High’s production of the musical See Rock City and Other Destinations is excellent. The story, the production, the music and the acting are all really good. And there’s a bonus: the tickets are cheap and sales support Berkeley High Drama.
This is the West Coast premiere of the show, which is being staged on Dec. 17 and 18 at the Florence Schwimley Little Theater, and, although it has been workshopped and earned a few minor awards in the past, it frankly deserves more attention.
The play follows the stories of people in six places: Rock City, GA; Roswell, NM; The Alamo, TX; Glacier Bay, AK; Coney Island, NY; and Niagara Falls, NY. These tourist destinations, well-known by most in the audience, tie in closely with the experiences of the people in the play: a young man looking for “signs” about his future, which he finds in literal signs such as, “SEE ROCK CITY”; a man who has left behind his life to be at the site of a UFO landing; a woman and her grandfather following the annual tradition of going to the place where her grandparents met; three sisters gathering to scatter their father’s ashes in his favorite bay; two best friends cutting school to go to an amusement park; and a runaway bride taking a tour of the famous Falls while still in her wedding dress.
See Rock City is outstanding in the way it links the stories of these disparate people. Often in literature, on screen, or on stage, strangers are brought together by a tragedy, or a coincidence, or a shared past. In See Rock City, however, characters from different scenes never actually meet each other. They are instead united by a common theme: in each place, the main character or characters are faced with a choice. They are connected not by this choice and what they ultimately decide to do, but rather their fear of this choice, their fear of breaking from the path of their lives that they have set for themselves.
Not only is the story of See Rock City compelling, the music is as well. The songs are catchy and well-written, and there is a live band onstage — a rarity when it comes to musical theater nowadays. The band consists of three cellists, guitar, bass guitar, and piano, all played by very talented BHS music students. The live music adds an active, buoyant atmosphere to the stage, and helps connect the audience with the performers.
There are a number of fine voices and finely etched performances in the production — the eponymous Rock City features excellent acting and and singing from Ethan Ostrow and Sarah Paxson, and the Alamo has splendid performances by Lena Sibony, Zev Marx-Kahn, Kobi Appel-Bernstein, and Samantha Whitty.
Coney Island, the story of two best friends cutting school to go to an amusement park, featuring Tom Battles and Jeff Blair, is exceptionally well-acted and very moving.
Despite all these excellent performances, however, See Rock City is not perfect — this is still a high-school, not a professional production. Yet, like Coney Island, it is affecting in a way that only high-school actors can create.
See Rock City is on Dec. 18 and 19 at 7 p.m. at the Florence Schwimley Little Theater (Allston Way @MLK Blvd.). Tickets are $5 for students and faculty and $10 for general admission, and can be bought at the box office or online through Brown Paper Tickets. Tel: 510-697-8312 for more information.
Johanna Staples-Ager is a student at Berkeley High School where she works as a reporter for the Berkeley High Jacket.
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