Today we have two very different, almost opposite, biographies about acting, written by journalists: one a cautionary tale of talent wasted, the other an inspirational story of talent emergent. Sokolove’s Drama High tells the inspiring story of a high school drama teacher pushing his students toward success, while Edwards’s Last Night at the Viper Room tells the tragic story of Rivers Phoenix’s descent into drugs and overdose. While there are probably few teens out there today who know Phoenix’s films, Edwards convinces us that his story is worth telling, and would be just as compelling if it were a fictional story. If Sokolove’s story were a novel, on the other hand, it would be far too easy to dismiss it as sentimental hokum.
Pairing these stories together, we see the dramatic importance that strong adults play in the success of the kids around them: if Phoenix had had a teacher or parent as caring as Lou Volpe, rather than a childhood spent in a bizarre cult with checked-out hippie parents, he might have actually been able to harness his talent and lead a successful life, the way so many of Volpe’s students have.
* SOKOLOVE, Michael. Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater. 352p. photos. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). 2013. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9781594488221. LC 2013019393.
Adult/High School–Imagine if Glee were about a drama program instead of a show choir, and instead of throwing slushies, all of the popular (and not-so-popular) kids showed up at auditions. Imagine working class kids who pull objects from trash heaps to create their sets, not to make a statement but out of budgetary constraints. Further imagine a man who has spent decades building a nationally renowned theater program in a public high school in economically depressed Levittown, Pennsylvania. Sokolove returns to his hometown to tell the engrossing story of Lou Volpe, this “brilliant, inspiring teacher” and the students he goads, challenges, and in whom he ultimately brings out the best. Drama High follows Volpe and the Harry S. Truman High School thespians as they rehearse and perform two productions: Good Boys True and Spring Awakening. The former is a play that relates a prep-school football player’s demise after a sex tape circulates, the latter a raw cautionary musical of adolescent sexuality amid ignorance. Far from the usual light fare, Volpe is known for choosing cutting edge, thought-provoking material for his students to tackle. Not only do they consistently earn the right to perform at the International Thespian Festival, but they were also chosen by to be the first to perform high school productions of Les Miserables, Rent, and Spring Awakening to determine the viability of licensing the musicals to other schools. Sokolove succeeds in relating an entertaining and compelling account of the power of theater and the dedication and determination of an extraordinary educator.–Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
* EDWARDS, Gavin. Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind. 288p. It: HarperCollins. Oct. 2013. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780062273154.
Adult/High School-While most of the narrative follows a straightforward biographical route-recounting the life of River Phoenix from birth to young death-the heart of Edwards’s inventive book is in the assortment of formal techniques he uses to triangulate his subject. The life itself is fascinating enough: born River Jude Bottom to hippie parents, Phoenix spent most of his childhood in Venezuela as part of an increasingly strange and possibly abusive cult called Children of God; upon returning to America, he became a TV and movie star, seemingly by sheer force of his titanic will and charisma; he quickly became enmeshed in drugs and alcohol; and even as he turned in one brilliant performance after another, he poisoned himself to death at the tragically young age of 23. The author’s tricks for getting to the essence of Phoenix’s story involve several forms of digression. In one set of chapters, called “Young Hollywood,” he charts the lives and careers of the incredibly talented young actors and musicians who worked with and around Phoenix, most of whom were at the Viper Room when he died. In “Echoes,” Edwards offers perspicacious synopses of several key scenes from Phoenix’s movies, which shed light on his life. While many teens may not have seen Phoenix’s films, this is essentially the story of a teenage life, and readers will be drawn to the powerful character and charm of this young man-which Edwards brings bursting through the page-and devastated by his wasted potential.-Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA