News Column

Philadelphia Daily News Chuck Darrow column

October 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 04--WHEN, IN 2002, Sir Cameron Mackintosh decided it was time to license "Les Miserables" for high-school presentation, he needed a school whose drama program could handle the formidable task of staging the first production.

The British uber-producer didn't turn to some palatial temple of public education in an affluent part of the country. He went instead to Harry Truman High School in Levittown, the proto-suburban Bucks County community that for years had been suffering from the collapse of the nearby steel industry.

The reason? Lou Volpe.

Volpe, who recently retired after 44 years as an English teacher and head of the theater program at Truman, had by then established himself as a superstar of scholastic show business, a nationally recognized leader in high-school drama.

Mackintosh wasn't alone in his appreciation of Volpe's passion for theater and his skill as a mentor of young performers. Author Michael Sokolove was another. And he decided it was time for the world to learn of Volpe's many accomplishments. The result is Drama High, The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, out last month from Riverhead Books.

The book, as its subtitle suggests, blends Volpe's tale with that of Levittown and an examination of the many dividends -- tangible and not -- created by his theater program. It chronicles two academic years in the lives of Volpe and his young charges.

"I was his student in ancient times," ragged Sokolove, 57, a former reporter for both the Daily News and Inquirer, during a recent phone call. "He was really the person who first opened up literature and writing to me. I thought about telling his story for many years because it's an amazing story.

"It's [a story of] astonishing success in a place you don't necessarily expect it, because Truman High does not have the best reputation locally. It's a much better place than people [think], but people don't expect big things out of there. But this is a big thing. It's a huge thing. It's high school theater at the highest imaginable level.

"So I thought about it, but always found a reason not to do it -- maybe people wouldn't be interested, or I had some other project I wanted to do more, or I didn't want to go back to Levittown on some level, or back to my old high school."

That changed in 2010 when Sokolove, a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine as well as the writer of books on tarnished baseball stars Darryl Strawberry and Pete Rose, was invited to give the commencement address at his alma mater. "I just felt like that was a sign," he said. "I just felt it was time for me to revisit this town and this school and this person who was so monumentally important to me."

According to Sokolove, Volpe, who unfortunately is currently battling some health issues, is a modest, "self-effacing" sort. Which makes it somewhat surprising he would have allowed Sokolove to write the book. But, reasoned the author, "I know he sees it as an opportunity to inspire others."

Thanks in large part to the Fox TV series "Glee," high-school theater has become something of a pop-culture totem these days. As such, it's not far-fetched to envision a movie based on "Drama High," and a project could soon be in the works.

Sokolove, who currently lives in suburban Washington, D.C., said he received "probably a dozen" inquiries about adapting the book for film or TV after an excerpt recently ran in the New York Times Magazine.

So, who should play the role of Lou Volpe? "Lou always said Stanley Tucci should play him," offered Sokolove. "I think that's a great choice."

Sound advice

I only stayed through the first act of Tuesday's performance of "Evil Dead -- The Musical," which runs through Oct. 20 at the Prince Music Theater. No, the "Rocky Horror"-like send-up of the "Evil Dead" film franchise -- the newly revived venue's first musical offering -- wasn't awful. As a matter of fact, there may have been much to recommend it.

But the sound system put the kibosh on that.

While the spoken lines were audible, it was nearly impossible to hear the performers when they started singing; the music in every number completely overwhelmed the vocals.

And it wasn't just my ears, or my seat.

At intermission, I saw a colleague who was sitting on the opposite side of the theater. He asked how the sound was where I was sitting, because he, too, couldn't make out a thing the cast was singing. That being the case, I saw no point in changing seats, so I left.

Thus the only suggestion I can offer is that the Prince straighten out the audio issues. Those planning to buy tickets should find out if said problems have been rectified. Otherwise it's strictly caveat emptor.

Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., 7 and 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 Tuesday through Thursday, $60-$42.50, 215-972-1000. princemusictheater.org.

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(c)2013 Philadelphia Daily News

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