Set when girls donned pleated skirts and boys wore ties, “Cooley High” follows four friends who skip school, go to the zoo, steal snacks, ride the Chicago el, shoot hoops (there’s a great choreographed basketball game), smoke dope, go to the movies, fight, sweet-talk girls — and all before the main storyline begins: After being arrested for car theft, the show’s two central characters beat to death a young athlete who they believe squealed to the cops.
Gritty neighborhoods, car chases, embarrassing bedroom scenes and lovers strolling through the city don’t lend themselves to the stage, especially with only a rudimentary slide show as backdrop. The show’s racial statement seems deliberately problematic (as it is not in the film) by the addition of one white actor who plays three roles: the patsy teacher, the patsy snack-stand guy and the patsy robbed by the black pimp. The show’s tone is equally troublesome, since it is relentlessly upbeat, pausing in its frolic only for the lugubrious funeral of the murder victim.
Granted, a big, young, energetic cast dancing to “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Dancing in the Street” and “I’ll Be There” is pretty irresistible, but it’s not enough to turn a movie into a musical.