THEATER REVIEW High School Nostalgia, Disney Style

Live Stage ‘High School Musical’ Better Than Movie

1302 hsm
Science class from Disney’s “High School Musical” national tour.
Joan Marcus—Disney

High School Musical

Directed by Jeff Calhoun

Choreographed by Lisa Stevens

Citi Performing Arts Center, Wang Theatre

Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007

Imagine a mishmash of every teenage chick flick comedy you have ever seen, throw in some singing and dancing, and BAM! you’ve got the live stage version of “High School Musical.”

The musical begins with a burst of color and energy — cheerleaders in tiny shorts dance and cheer for the East High School Wildcats while the rest of the school mills about in the background — and the energy continues through the show.

After the introduction, in a scene stolen straight from “Grease,” the performance cuts to new student Gabriella Montez singing to her new friend, Taylor, about the cute guy she met over winter break. That guy happens to be Troy Bolton, star of the East High basketball team, who simultaneously brags to his friends about the girl he met while snowboarding. (They actually met while singing a duet together at a New Year’s Party.) When Troy sees Gabriella in his homeroom, they quickly and happily renew their acquaintance.

The trouble starts when they both decide to try out for the school musical.

Troy is caught between his newfound passion for singing (and Gabriella) and his duties towards his basketball team and his dad, the coach. Meanwhile, the shy and smart Gabriella has fallen in with the “brainiacs,” who deride her for her interest in a jock and her pursuit of such frivolous activities as musicals. Finally, the president of the Drama Club, the popular Sharpay, will do anything to maintain her queen bee status, even if it means sabotaging the pair. Will Gabriella and Troy manage to withstand the pressures and stay true to themselves?

The plot is not original by any means, but its very familiarity can be a comfort. Sure, you know exactly what’s going to happen, but would you really want it to happen any other way? Without the worry of wondering whether or not it’s going to all work out, you can laugh freely at the outlandish machinations of the jocks, the nerds, and the duo of Sharpay and her twin brother Ryan as they try to thwart the lead couple. And there is plenty to laugh about in the show. Chandra Lee Schwartz is hilarious as a shrill-voiced Sharpay, striding about in a perpetually annoyed whirlwind of blonde and pink chic-ness with the extremely metro Ryan in tow. Another great character is the eccentric drama teacher Ms. Darbus (played by Ellen Harvey) who calls her class to order by striking a gong and makes the students pretend to be animals during detention.

The leads are equally well cast. Though it is hard to believe that the gorgeous Arielle Jacobs (who plays Gabriella) could ever be labeled as a “freaky math girl,” her sweet, bright smile makes her seem genuinely shy and likable. (As an MIT student, it is also hard not to sympathize with a heroine who is part of the school’s science decathlon team.) John Jeffrey Martin is charismatic as Troy, easily looking the part of the popular basketball star. Although sometimes I found his voice to be slightly too boy-band-ish, he and Jacobs sounded wonderful together on their duets. Troy’s and Gabriella’s respective best friends, jock Chad (Shakiem Evans) and brainiac Taylor (Shaullanda LaCombe), both had strong voices. It was only a shame they didn’t get to showcase them in more solos.

In the end, however, “High School Musical” is really all about the ensemble nature of the show. The large chorus and slick dance numbers with lots of people make for a loud and lively show. One of my favorite scenes was the beautifully choreographed “Get’cha Your Head in the Game,” where basketballs thumped in unison and the squeak of shoes on the dance floor lead off the song. The cast seemed to be having fun with their routines, and their energy proved infectious as audience members started dancing and clapping in their seats during the final numbers.

The excellent, retro-colored sets also added to the fun. Round cafeteria tables and rows of lockers immediately brought me back to my high school days, which, though not that long ago, seem so far away. The costumes were also impressive as slightly exaggerated versions of what different cliques really do wear — from the skater dudes’ baggy pants to the drama students’ boho frocks to the punk kids’ tight black jeans and Converses.

If you’ve seen the original Disney movie version of “High School Musical” and were put off by the corniness and bad acting, don’t let that stop you from checking out the live stage version. Though the cast is still young and vibrant, they are professionals and not the untried teenagers of the Disney movie. Their voices are Broadway voices, much richer and stronger than the bubblegum pop voices in the original. Likewise, their acting skills are stronger. The choreography is also more sophisticated.

Best of all, the stage version knows that it is cliché and exaggerates things even more for comedic effect; the movie, on the other hand, tries to be too serious and ends up being unbearably corny for anyone over the age of 12. That’s not to say the live “High School Musical” didn’t have a few groan-worthy moments (it is Disney, after all), but overall it was a well put together, highly enjoyable show that people of any age can enjoy.