Sunday, November 11, 2007

High School Musical

‘HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL’ leaves kids reviewers, tweens and teens screaming at The Palace

On the way out of ‘HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL,’ the touring show which is now on stage at The Palace Theatre, an adult male, who was accompanying a fellow reviewer said, “I really enjoyed that. I didn’t know anything about it beforehand.” I’m not sure what planet he’s been on, but he must not have a television set, know or be related to any tweens or teens, or read the entertainment section of a newspaper.

’HIGH SCHOOL MUSCIAL’ is BIG! The story is typical after-school boob-tube fodder. Troy Bolton, super stud captain of the East High basketball team, and Gabriella Montez, a pretty, shy transfer student who excels in math and science, try out, and against the odds, beat out the school’s drama queen, Sharpay and her twin bother Ryan, for the lead parts in their high school’s musical. Despite other students' attempts to thwart their dreams, Troy and Gabriella resist peer pressure and rivalry, inspiring others along the way to “be everything they can be.” (Okay, as a former junior high school counselor, I’m a sucker for plays with a healthy moral!) And, of course, it all ends with a kiss and a great curtain call production number.

First released as a telefilm in January, 2006, it was not only the most successful of Disney Channel’s original movies, but it spawned an entire industry. ‘HIGH SCHOOL MUSCIAL 2’ was released in August of 2007, an ice show version is touring and there is a casting call out for “3,” which will be released to movie theatres in 2009. The merchandise sales are booming, all the way from pink boa pens to key chains in the form of basketball shoes to “I love Troy” t-shirts. Disney has released the script for high school and student productions which will bring in even more bucks through royalty fees.

It has made household names out of Zac Efron, who plays Troy Bolton in the tv versions, and Vanessa Hudgens, the portrayer of Gabriella Montez. They are now the king and queen of gossip magazine front pages.

Not only has the show caught on with tween age girls, it is a big hit with junior and senior high school kids of both sexes. At the Palace production there were numerous males, some dressed in Albuquerque East High Wildcat basketball jerseys (another product of the Disney product blitz).

With the youth audience in mind, I took my “kid” theatre reviewers Alex (12 and a talented pianist) and Noah Berko (a 10 year-old jock), to critique the show. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), they gave the production a “9 1’2”(Alex) and “8 1/2” (Noah). Reasoning: “There were some real clever special effects.” (They especially liked the staging of the winning shot of the championship basketball game.) “There was more humor in the play than the movie.” “It was more interesting watching real people dancing and singing, than seeing it on a screen.” “The play tryout scene had some funny parts.” “The scene in detention was hysterical. The worm was a riot.” (Dante Russo, doing an inch-worm dance, was a stitch and brought laughter and applause.) “I liked watching the clever way they changed the scenery.” “The quality of the singing and dancing was good.” “The ending was dynamic.”

From an adult perspective: The stage version, which follows the story of the movie, and adds two new numbers, is every bit as good as the film, and in many cases better. (Yes, I’ve seen both tv productions!) Seeing the characters in real life is more engaging. . The singing is professional quality. The casting is right-on. I especially liked John Jeffrey Martin (Troy), a tall athletic looking and engaging young man who adds a more real quality to the character than the aesthetically perfect Zac Effron who didn’t have the “jock” aura. Arielle Jacobs (Gabriella) is totally engaging. The duo has nice interpersonal chemistry. Chandra Lee Schwartz (Sharpay) is properly repulsive as the drama queen, while Bobby List, a terrific dancer, gives a nice sensitivity to Ryan, Sharpay’s henpecked twin. Ellen Harvey is delightful as Ms. Darbus, the diva drama teacher. The rest of the cast is also excellent. The choreography is creative and nicely executed. The orchestra is excellent.

There are some locals in the show. Ashley Campana, who is in the ensemble, was born in Elyria and raised in Vermillion and Westlake. Guitarist Joe Parker is from Lyndhurst, and bass player Paul Reich is from Akron, as is Dan Bailey, the show’s Associate Conductor.

Capsule judgment: The touring company of ‘HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL’, which is composed of many Actor’s Equity performers, is an audience pleasing production. It’s a wonderful way of introducing tweens and teens to the world of live theatre.

Side-note: I hate to be a grouch, but it is annoying to be the victim of a mother of the three and five-year olds, who sat behind me, explaining everything in her “outside” voice to her cherubs. Much to the irritation of those around her, who paid $67.50 for each of their premium seating tickets, she did little to control the three-year old’s crying through the last ten minutes of the show. (Maybe a minimum age of 7 would be appropriate for evening performances of shows that last over two hours.) Also, don’t be surprised when the wrappers of the candy bought at the concession stands, are ripped open mid-song and empty soft drink cups are thrown on the floor and roll noisily down the raked auditorium floor. (I know, Play House Square makes lots of money from the concession sales, but how about restricting food inside the theatre?)