Hughes Heaven

Staged!'s teen musical "John Hughes High" is pure '80s gold

There’s a moment in Staged!’s new musical John Hughes High when a teenage girl realizes she’s falling in love. Yet the object of her affection is not one person—it’s a school packed with loners, leaders, artists, athletes, and plenty of kids who haven’t quite figured out what they are.

Nerd City: Aidan Tappert, Brendan Long, Martin Hernandez in “John Hughes High.” Photo: David Kinder

That moment is proof that the creators of John Hughes High, Mark LaPierre and Eric Nordin, understand that while Hughes had a sense of humor about high-school heartaches (who doesn’t laugh when Jon Cryer gets chucked into the girls’ bathroom in Pretty in Pink?), he did his young characters the honor of taking their emotions and desires seriously. John Hughes High (which is enjoying its world premiere on the Alder Stage at Artists Rep) does the same, and as a result, the rapidly beating heart of its heroine briefly becomes yours.

That heroine is Samantha (Lavinia Martin-Weber), the newest student at the play’s titular high school. The year is 1989, but the kids here act like millenials who have time-traveled to the ’80s and are loving every minute of it (one girl even weeps at the mere thought of leaving John Hughes High).

Flexing: Jackson Wells, Lavinia Martin-Weber, Isaac Smith. Photo: David Kinder

Samantha, by contrast, wants nothing more than to study abroad at the delightfully named French School of Ennui. Her mother (Lisamarie Harrison) says she can go if she is voted “most friendly” in John Hughes High’s “best of” competition, and Samantha rises to the challenge, befriending everyone from dorks to dancers (some of the kids are played by actual high schoolers) in the hopes that she’ll never have to see them again.

Nestled in this narrative is a serious meditation on the not-so-different skills required to be a friend and to act like a friend. Yet John Hughes High is also a dose of plain old goofy fun. The songs—especially “The Right Equation,” in which three shy nerds known as the “Real Geniuses” (Brendan Long, Martin Hernandez, and Aidan Tappert) hilariously overthink the art of wooing girls—pop with satirical verve. And as for the gloriously gaudy costumes (which were designed by Emily Horton), the hair and the makeup … let’s just say they make you want to put on a pair of fire-engine-red high heels or dye your locks a violent shade of emerald green (or both).

Mikaela Ochocki, Tirza Meuljic, Chandra Maya Dehnert. Photo: David Kinder

These visual flourishes dazzle your eyes without obscuring the play’s soul: the magnificent Martin-Weber. She embraces Samantha’s epic cynicism with relish (when Samantha’s mother tells her she loves her, Samantha disdainfully reminds her that she loves anchovies, too), yet the power of the performance is the way Martin-Weber allows flickers of tenderness to emerge. For instance, Samantha initially cozies up to the Real Geniuses simply to appear friendly, but when she finally admits that she truly does care about them, Martin-Weber’s delivery is so tender that you feel as if you’re not watching a play, but witnessing something astonishingly private and real.

The wonder of that moment lies in the way it transcends John Hughes High’s backward-looking momentum—something that LaPierre and Nordin aren’t always able to do. There’s a slightly unsettling pro-establishment streak in the script (which suggests that Samantha is wrong to question the groupthink that rules John Hughes High), and when a clearly more-than-platonic friendship between Samantha and the angelic Amy (Kaylee Bair) goes nowhere, the play misses a perfect opportunity to turn Hughes’s heteronormative world on its head.

And yet it’s impossible not to love John Hughes High, especially when it reaches its climax: a Samantha-directed musical based on Cyrano de Bergerac that somehow involves makeshift lightsabers. It’s joyously weird, but it’s also about kids from different walks of life coming together—a utopian vision that makes you want to jump out of your seat and onto the stage and into the center of this wacky, winsome, and beautifully big-hearted play.


The Staged! production of John Hughes High continues through May 20 on the Alder Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.



About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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