The Sauk High School cafeteria crackles like a nuclear reactor. You don't pack a lunchroom with 1,500 high school show choir performers without expecting the atoms to whirl. Hot pizza, burgers and Mountain Dew only crank it up higher. I dress a couple hot dogs at the well-endowed condiment island and squeeze into a spot at a table.
The Fox dramedy Glee has plucked show choir from the backwaters of high school activities, back there in the shadow of sports, and thrust it into the high altitudes of mainstream hip. Thing is, real-life show choir is so much more than the primetime series. And so much less. The real version has all the friendships, hard work and drama of Glee, with none of the gratuitous cruelty.
Which isn't to say it's not intense. Show choir teams create an eight-number repertoire at the beginning of the school year. Choreography is designed. Costumes are chosen and adapted. Hours of practice lead to weekend travel to places like Sauk, where nerves and talent are tested in grueling daylong competitions.
Inside the gym, Northern Lights, from North High School in St. Paul, get ready to go on. The enormous stage sprawls across the west end of the basketball floor like the deck of a space ship. Eight impeccably dressed judges sit at a long table on the other end, a venerable-looking group if there ever was one. Their collective exposure to versions of "Proud Mary" must total in the hundreds.
The overhead lights dim and, with a squall of teenage screams, the room dissolves to darkness. The Northern Lights' eight-piece band takes the stage, followed by the 40-member team. The girls glow in sequined red cocktail dresses, the boys resplendent in red shirts and sequined black vests. Let it be known that America's show choirs single-handedly keep the sequin industry afloat.
As good as they look, the Lights' program is strictly meat and potatoes. Traditional, risk-free. Very good ensemble singing. Adequate soloing, solid dancing. But they have a killer ending and give the audience a real lift with "Let's Get Loud."
Green Bay Preble's Center Stage team is also a traditional act, but there's magic in a well-chosen song list. Fog machine alert! They take the stage through curtains of disco smoke. The program reveals that approximately a third of their 45-member team is named Brittany.
A technical glitch, which is the fault of the house, not the team, deprives the electric guitar player of a solo, and from the looks of his fretwork it would have been killer.
We're still a couple of acts from our home team, Madison East's Encore, as cross-town rival Monona Grove's Silver Connection throw down a powerful prelim performance. Their set goes from bombastic ("O Fortuna") to sublime (Mozart's "Lacrimosa") to existential (Bizet's "Habaneras"). Nearly half their show is in minor keys. It's a big, brave, original performance but lacks the overall synchronicity that garners gold.
There's a new trend in show choir competition that drives me crazy. Rather than dream-weave an act from scratch, some teams now simply re-create chunks of Broadway musicals. Today Mayville High has copped portions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Reedsburg sweeps together clips from Hair. Two things are true about these acts: They both are very good. And they both had their arrangements and choreography spoon-fed to them by the best in the industry. These re-creators should have their own category.
The 2010 Madison East Encore squad upholds a strong tradition of original production. If there is a Glee comparison to make at East, it would have to come in the form of the group's dynamic director, Brooksie Beilke-Skoug, who, in addition to having a name worthy of primetime TV, is also an amalgamation of every positive adult personality on the series. Gutsy. Determined. Fearless.
East is known for its powerful partner dancing and ensemble singing. Which isn't to say the team is slack in the solo department. Hannah Meddaugh's glorious alto voice, with chilling vibrato on the low notes, nearly gets the partisan audience to its feet during her treatment of Regina Spektor's "The Call."
A costume change midway and the girls return in colorful mini-dresses as festive as birthday cakes. The boys return in turquoise shirts and ties and switch to singing in Spanish, not missing a beat. The band's horn section jots notes like fountain-pen strikes on fresh paper. Encore shines.
It's 4 p.m. A few more prelim performances will be followed by a dinner break, announcements of the finalists, and then finals competition. East makes the cut, but a staggered start in their finals performance costs them. They finish a respectable fifth runner-up, just behind their friends at Monona Grove. The bus pulls onto 4th Street late, rolls to a stop and opens its doors. After a 14-hour day, the exhausted performers step out of the spotlight and ease into the dark night, headed home.