While it's never less than likable, "Is There Life After High School?" could use an adult education course. In spite of a charming batch of songs, an attractive cast of nine, and a bright physical production, the mosaic-like intimate musical that opened last night at the Barrymore unfortunately suggests that there's little life during high school.
The five men and four women who reflect on their school days, with the emphasis on rueful or sentimental scenes, are a conglomerate representing grads of from 10 to 20 years back. Since they sometimes mingle in twos, threes or altogether, as in a reunion that takes up a good part of the second half, keeping track of them can become confusing. But the show's essential weakness lies in Jeffrey Kindley's pallid book, which consists of snatches of dialogue or brief soliloquies between songs. In place of the sassiness that enlivened "Grease," we are enveloped in too many tender memories.
The songs are dandy. Craig Carnelia, who composed both music and lyrics, is strongly influenced, as what young writer isn't these days, by Stephen Sondheim; yet he finds a sunny voice of his own in a varied and engaging series of numbers. The music has an attractive line throughout, and the lyrics are deft and unforced.
And while his way with a ballad ("I'm Glad You Didn't Know Me") and sentimental song of reunion ("Fran and Janie") is winning, he and the show are at their best in the ensemble numbers, notably "Thousands of Trumpets," a marching-band piece about high-school instruments gathering dust in countless closets, and, better still, "Second Thoughts," in which all nine consider the various ways they should have responded, but didn't, to minor school crises.
There's surprisingly little dancing (a prom duet in which a clumsy pair imagine they're supremely graceful, and some unison steps by the company). But "Beer," an amusing romp by three men in ther 30s about the giddy effect a six-pack could produce in the old days, has Raymond Baker, Harry Groener and David Patrick Kelly scaling, hanging from, and teetering along the railings of John Lee Beatty's clever two-level set. "The Kid Inside," in which they all refer to the vibrant youngster that still lurks somewhere inside, opens and closes the evening.
Besides those already mentioned, unstinting praise goes out to petite Maureen Silliman (life hasn't measured up to her day as homecoming queen), gangly James Widdoes (the onetime short, fat, awkward butt of school jokes), Sandy Faison (still the pretty cheerleader, even after a bout with cancer), and Philip Hoffman (the shy boy who's glad Cynthia Carle, another divorcee, didn't know him "then.").
Robert Nigro has staged the evening breezily with the aid of Beatty's flexible set, Carol Oditz' suitable costumes, and a smart onstage band under Bruce Coughlin.
But the evening's real find is Carnelia, previously represented on Broadway by a couple of songs in the short-lived "Working." I can hardly wait for his next show.
There is not that much wrong with Is There Life After High School?, which made its much-delayed debut last night at the Ethel Barrymore theater, but the little that is right, apart from nine niftly and nimble performances, is too slender by half.
It is said that its producers and director were making changes up to the last minute. If so, the last minute came far too early. For one thing, they scarcely seemed to have gotten around to start fixing the second act.
High School is a memory show - so full of nostalgia that it drips. It is a Proustian memory show at that, for memories can be even evoked by the "smell of carnations." It is dedicated to the justifiable proposition that: "There is a kid inside...and I have him with me always."
Apparently it was suggested by a book, of the same screamingly imaginative name, by one Ralph Keyes. This I have never read, but I expect it was a bestseller, and a laugh-riot as it nudged its way through the years of pranks and heartbreaks, drunks and heartburn, aspirations missed and ambitions lost. A laugh-riot - I betcha.
Of course, for a large segment of the community there doubtless is no life after high school - these were not only the happiest days of their lives, they were, in a quite real sense, the only days of their lives. The days before reality obtruded, and hope receded. Days of despair, but at least days survived.
As a result, one can trigger a laugh with a simple mention of SAT scores or the senior prom. The line: "I believed that trigonometry would be useful one day," can raise a genuine and legitimate laugh. And all the stories of the insecurities that blanket young lives can impel honest waves of empathy.
School was fun, school was hell, school was serious, school was make-believe - and all the school heroes (or most) satisfyingly received their cum-uppance in the real university of life, that other school of hard knocks. Rah, rah, rah and rah!
Unfortunately High School is fundamentally a one-joke musical. Everything is variations on a theme that does not permit too many permutations. Not enough to last an evening. It soon becomes rather like a high school reunion itself - after all, how many old jokes can you bear to meet during two hours?
Like everything about the show, its format is understandably unpretentious. The book by Jeffrey Kindley is quite inventively stuffed with the same jokes. The music and lyrics by Craig Carnella are haunted by nostalgic songs that sound familiar and suitable without ever proving unsettling.
The show lost its director somewhere along the line in the previews, and it now has Robert Nigro, who has discovered a new nomenclature, namely Production Stager. The cast of nine move around the shifting, scholastically inspired scenery by John Lee Beatty effectively and efficiently enough - and all the dramatic points that might have been made, apparently have been made.
I liked also the ingenuity of Carol Oditz' costumes, which neatly run the gamut of high school modes and moods. The best of all, I liked the cast.
All were as cute as buttons, and as sharp as tacks. I particularly enjoyed Raymond Baker, Harry Groener and David Patrick Kelly extolling the glories of teenage beer, Cynthia Carle and Philip Hoffman deciding they were glad they didn't know one another as high school conformists, Sandy Faison and Maureen Silliman as bosom buddies grown apart, James Widdoes lamenting the built-in obsolescence of high school band instruments, and best of all Alma Cuervo telling of the raptures of love unconsummated.
Yes, there is a certain amount of life in this High School, but if you are anything like me - where too much nostalgic sentiment brings you out in hives - you will probably think longingly of dropping out before final graduation.
''Is There Life After High School?'' wants to bring back its audience's teen-age salad days, and in at least one way it succeeds. This musical, which had its much-delayed opening at the Barrymore last night, is an almost perfect simulation of high-school detention hall.
The set, designed by John Lee Beatty, is a realistic two-level warren of classrooms and corridors - complete with gloomy institutional color scheme, desks and lockers. One stares at it for two hours with little distraction - not even a fire drill. True, a few members of the audience depart early - a no-no in the detention halls of my experience - but perhaps those lucky souls had brought notes from home.
''Is There Life After High School?'' could have been far livelier than this. It was ''suggested'' by a delightful 1976 book of the same title, in which a journalist named Ralph Keyes made the persuasive case that high school is the most traumatic rite of passage in American life. Mr. Keyes interviewed countless alumni, of all ages and social stations, and discovered that most of them could still remember the student council elections that they lost, the classmates who humiliated them in gym, the ''in''-crowd parties from which they were excluded. He found, too, that most of those that he interviewed, no matter how successful in adulthood, still dreamed of looking up their old crushes and nemeses to right junior-year wrongs.
The structureless book of the musical, written by Jeffrey Kindley, is another matter. It contains none of the realistic detail and texture of Mr. Keyes's study - and none of the wit or point of view of such similarly conceived entertainments as the classic ''National Lampoon High School Yearbook Parody'' or movies like ''American Graffiti'' or ''Diner.'' Indeed, Mr. Kindley hasn't even bothered to create any characters - whether real, fictional or composite. Instead, we watch nine performers stroll about telling watered-down anecdotes, unrooted in time, place or narrative, that are written in an impersonal, everyman's voice. Even the one real scene - a reunion - takes place in vague limbo: the banners variously identify the reunited class as that of '66, '68 and '70.
Mr. Kindley apparently wants to duplicate the confessional technique of ''A Chorus Line'' - at least one joke from that show recurs here - but because the interchangeable speakers are faceless and their lines are bland, the brief monologues have all the spontaneity and pizazz of ''Dial-A-Joke.'' The incessant use of adolescent buzz words - with a particular emphasis on brand names such as Clerasil and English Leather - is not enough to give the lines any flavor. But if most of the script is innocuous, it descends to tastelessness in Act II, when Mr. Kindley exploits the dread words ''cancer'' and ''Nam'' in otherwise trivial speeches.
Without any characters to work with, all of the writer's collaborators are left in the lurch. It's impossible to design costumes for nonpeople, so the cast of ''High School'' must wear nondescript outfits often suggestive of funeral-home attendants. Mr. Beatty's set, belonging to no particular place, is a dull nowhere land (unenlivened by Beverly Emmons's lighting) in which platforms occasionally move up and down without reason, unless it's to prevent the stagehands from falling asleep. The direction, by Robert Nigro, mainly consists of having people walk front and center or, for idle variety's sake, up and down stairs.
The songwriter, Craig Carnelia, is in a hopeless quandary. Though his songs deal with a variety of topics - from the joys of beer-drinking to the awkwardness of dating rituals - they are all doomed to sound the same because he can't write them in the voices of specific people. His one attempt to create a character behind Mr. Kindley's back - an Act I finale about a grown-up homecoming queen's nostalgic memories - is maudlin and didactic.
Mr. Carnelia may well have talent as a pop tunesmith, if not as a lyricist, but it's buried by Bruce Coughlin's colorless electronic arrangements, played by a wan onstage combo that sounds as if it were piped in from a motel cocktail lounge. It's typical of this show's thoughtlessness that the one out-and-out attempt at a razzle-dazzle Broadway showstopper contains no discernible brass in its orchestration - even though it's a tribute to high school bands. It is, however, the one number with some dancing - or, at least, marching.
Among the helpless victims on stage are Harry Groener, Alma Cuervo, Maureen Silliman, Raymond Baker, David Patrick Kelly and Sandy Faison, all of whom work hard to make something out of nothing - and, in some cases, too hard. But with any luck, summer vacation should be here soon.