Review Roundup: Disney+'s HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES
Disney+'s "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" arrives tomorrow, November 12, with the launch of the new streaming platform.
Starring an exciting, multitalented cast, the scripted Disney+ series introduces 10 main characters: Nini (Rodrigo), Ricky (Bassett), Gina (Sofia Wylie), E.J. (Matt Cornett), Ashlyn (Julia Lester), Kourtney (Dara Renee'), Carlos (Frankie Rodriguez), Big Red (Larry Saperstein), Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) and Mr. Mazzara (Mark St. Cyr) - a group of drama students and faculty members at East High, the Utah high school where the original "High School Musical" movie was filmed. Through the course of 10 episodes, these characters count down from auditions to opening night of their school's first-ever production of "High School Musical." They have budding romances, faltering friendships and harsh rivalries as they experience the transformative power that only high school theatre and music can provide.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Caroline Framke, Variety: In the first two episodes screened for critics, the series does try to make some adjustments to shake up the peppy clichés of the original. E.J. is a popular jock without any of the usual macho hangups that usually go with that role. The scene-stealing role of the fiercely ambitious Sharpay (originally played by Ashley Tisdale) goes to an equally ambitious, if quieter, boy. Nini has two mothers. And there's one genuinely moving scene in which Nini finds Ashlyn (Julia Lester) rehearsing her own original song and joins in, their voices opening up to fill the cavernous auditorium with their palpable longing. These moments, however, tend to highlight the fact that other aspects of the show remain frustratingly similar to the movie's overwhelmingly two-dimensional approach, like the fact of Nini's best friend (Dara Renee) being a wary black girl without much discernible interiority of her own.
Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture: The show seems aimed at fully self-aware meta humor, but it's not quite sharp enough to pull off self-mockery, and at the same time, too loopingly referential to just be a straight remake. You see the jokes happening right there in front of your face, but you can't feel them, so you're left wondering if they actually were jokes. It's like if the Wikipedia page for "intellectual property" became a sentient being and then appeared in an animated series about the Wikipedia page for "spinoff" - when you stare at it, you can see the possibility for fun, light goofiness. But mostly what you see is a Disney property chewing, swallowing, and then regurgitating itself whole.
Kelly Lawlor, USA Today: A cynical person would think of the shameless, money-grabbing parade of Hollywood rehashes when looking at "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" (streaming Tuesday, a??a??a?? out of four). It's one of only two original scripted live-action series available at the launch of Disney+, the new marquee streaming service from the biggest of Hollywood's corporate giants (the other being "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian"). But despite how soulless it may seem, "Musical" is a remarkably unabashed and delightful love letter to high school theater in a way the original film wasn't.
Scott Mendelson, Forbes: Without getting into finger-wagging, the set up puts us in a situation were our proverbial lead character spends the entire show being fought over by two dudes and spends much of the show being tormented and/or made uncomfortable in a situation that was supposed to bring her happiness. We find ourselves rooting against the thing we are supposed to endorse, namely a successful production of the show and find the show's key moments, the rehearsals and theater drama, undercut by the downright cruel behavior of the male co-lead. Whether or not it's "problematic" or "toxic," it's just aggressively unfun. Yes, Glee thrived on passion plays, but the musical numbers balanced out (or enhanced) the often-painful melodrama. High School Musical either needs more songs or a course correction.
Ann Donahue, IndieWire: A piano duet, "Wondering," sung by Rodrigo and Julia Lester, who plays songwriter Ashlyn, at the end of Episode 2 is a classic showstopper. They are interrupted while nonchalantly singing centerstage! The lighting is direct yet diffused! The camera swoops around them Michael Bay-style! Amid all the Easter Eggs to the original movie series and social media in-jokes that litter HSMTMTS, it's a pure moment. In a competitive TV landscape, sometimes it just takes a showy display of two kids with baby Adele-esque talent to remember that, with Disney, you can always bet on it. (Sorry, had to do it.)
Shannon Miller, AV Club: Though any potential early comparisons to Glee would be understandable, music seems to be less of a vehicle for abstract concepts here and more of a literal element of the production it chronicles. Its documentary-style delivery makes it more reminiscent of Park And Recreation, from the fictionalized ambitions of this ensemble to confessional-like asides that give each person an authentic chance to show what they have to offer. It grounds High School Musical-originally highly dramatic by design-with moments that don't require an abiding love of musicals to appreciate. More importantly, it manages to do this while paying great respect to the story that inspired it. Thus far, it still occasionally falls prey to certain fatigued tropes; for instance, is there really a pressing need to pit The Arts and S.T.E.M. against one another in 2019, even if Reinders and Mark St. Cyr are thoroughly watchable as opposing forces? But what Federle and HSM: TM: TS deliver outweighs the show's potential hang-ups: a fresh take on an old favorite that genuinely wants to give its young audience the smart, fun content it deserves.
Libby Torres, Insider: But maybe the most exciting part about the show is getting to see some fresh faces take on Disney classics like "Breaking Free" and "Start of Something New." While Bassett, Rodrigo, and Cornett's acting skills leave something to be desired, they all have amazing singing voices - so watching them belt out beloved "High School Musical" songs, even in the context of a high school theater production, is undoubtedly enjoyable.
Vinnie Mancuso, Collider: Most of the show works like gangbusters besides, funny enough, that mockumentary format, even though it's obvious why Disney+ is into the idea. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is hyper-focused toward The Youths, from the lingo, to the references, to every character having simply no choice but to stan. I was born in 1991 and this show made me feel roughly 10,000 years old; there's a moment in episode 2 where someone pulls out a cell phone from 2006 and a high schooler asks if it's a garage door opener. But, to cater to that same binge-hungry crowd, Disney+ needs its own The Office or Parks and Recreation, and this show replicates those comedies' talking head segments, quick janky camera-zooms, and the occasional wide-eyed look toward the camera. But it almost feels like the show would be better off as a straight comedy, because it is often genuinely funny, and the mockumentary trappings are a distraction from the work this talented cast is putting on.
Joel Keller, Decider: There's a lot of mockumentary-style stuff that isn't really necessary, from the side interviews to the shaky handheld-style footage. It's distracting; isn't it enough that we're seeing fake students from the real high school where HSM was shot auditioning and rehearsing for HSMTM? Why do we need to go another level of meta with the mockumentary style? Yes, one of the side interviews has Miss Jenn giving the line that she feels she's "saving lives" by mounting musicals. But shouldn't this be just a story about the kids and how Ricky is going to get Nini back, plus stories about some of the other teens in the musical?
Kayla Cobb, Decider: On paper, there's no reason why a meta show about High School Musical should work. And yet between its self-aware High School Musical 2 disses and its plethora of teenagers who care more about their own drama than anything happening on stage, it does. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is as funny and delightful as its name is long. It doesn't matter if you loved or hated the original 2006 movie. You're going to laugh at this.
Megan Peters, ComicBook.com: At the surface, The Series feels familiar. Its mockumentary style is well-known by audiences at this point, but its quick cuts and quips will make many think of Ryan Murphy's Glee. The comparison is hard to avoid, given the shows' similar subject matter, but Disney picks and chooses when to use its one-liners. A particular joke about the High School Musical sequels had me rolling, and the show drops other zingers along the way.
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