Has Live Arts finally jumped the shark?

Live Arts, the local theater group known for offering us Brecht, Mamet, Albee, Sondheim, Aristophanes, and other challenging works, begins the 2008-2009 season with a surprising choice: Disney's High School Musical. According to artistic director John Gibson, in an interview on the Charlottesville Podcasting Network, this will be Live Arts' first teen musical. "It's about the love of theater," said Gibson. "So it's right at home here."


Live Arts jumped the shark a long time before High School Musical. For the last fifteen years (at least), they have considered themselves to be just a step below professional theater. That is until a negative review comes out. At that point they cry "we're just community theater!". You can't have it both ways Live Arts. While you indeed have a few good productions and actors (Mark Valahovic for one, who somehow got sucked into being part of the High School Musical nonsense), you are basically a step above Four County. So it's about time you showed your true colors as community theater, and put on such mind numbing material as High School Musical!

IMHO Live Arts jumped the shark when they moved into the new building. At Michie Live Arts was something unique, intimate, and special. At the new building, not so much.

Ha ha ha. Hey, sometimes you gotta fill the seats.

I hate to be put in the position of defending the treacly Disney's High School Musical, the success of which owes much more to hype than to artistic merit, but ...

I saw the national touring company of HSM at the National Theatre in Washington not long ago, and it surprised me as being a well-constructed, multi-layered (in the sense of having jokes for adults as well as children and tweeners), and colorful.

What's most important, however, is that the audience consisted largely of pre-teen kids who were experiencing, in the majority of cases, their first time inside a legitimate theatre. And you know what? The kids sat enraptured. Far from being the disruption one normally expects when seeing 8- and 10-year-olds in the nearby seats, they were well-behaved as well as enjoying themselves.

During intermission, I talked with the president of the National Theatre, Dr. Donn Murphy, about this very phenomenon. He was delighted to see so many young people in the audience, because he knew that this positive experience would spur them to come back, either on their own or with their parents. (If nothing else, the parents learned that their offspring were mature enough to sit through a 2-hour musical play without squirming. They might not be ready for Sweeney Todd, but why not try Oklahoma! or Annie?)

Dr. Murphy related a story of two adorable little girls who once came to see Cats (another much derided, and deservedly so, musical) and how he knew that their enjoyment of that play would entice them to come back again.

The fact that Live Arts is doing HSM with a cast of high-schoolers should be enough to justify it. But anything that brings younger people -- or people of any age -- into a live theatre when they might not otherwise come is also justification.

For the performers, it's a learning opportunity; for parents, it's a teaching opportunity; for audience newbies, it could be an opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime.