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'High School Musical': Settling for Mediocrity

SHOW INFORMATION: Through March 2.  Tues - Sat at 8PM, Sat at 2PM, Sun at 1PM and 6:30PM.  Tickets $25-$70.  410-547-SEAT or 

◊◊◊ 1/2 out of five.  2 hours, 10 minutes, including intermission. 


One has to wonder what kind of reception Disney's High School Musical – the stage version - might have gotten from the opening night audience at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre, had Disney's High School Musical – the movie version-  not already existed.  True, the throngs of kids (ages 8 through twenty, female AND male) screamed for their favorite characters and sang their favorite songs at volumes which challenged the amplification system.  But perhaps the most honest reaction was the near silence – save for rustling, chatting and complaining – that greeted non-film scenes, characters and songs.  In truth, the stage version is a pretty pale version of the already pretty pale movie version.  And so it is a credit to the cast when I say that, on the whole, they are far superior to the material with which they have to work. 

HSM has some admirable qualities to be sure.  First, it makes Grease look downright scandalous – nary a pregnancy scare in sight, and the lead girl doesn't have to become a slut to get her man.  That, in and of itself, makes this show superior in my book.  Second, it offers a squeaky clean version of life in American public high schools, where cliques exist, but can band together for an audition, not even the actual show; where chubby girls are loved like cheerleaders and not a single jock is portrayed as dumb.  Good that Disney has forsaken most stereotypes here – people of color are jocks AND brains, pretty girls are smart, and even the geekiest guys are cool.  (It is somewhat surprising that gay-friendly Disney perpetuates the drama kid stereotypes – the diva girl and the fey boy, leaving the poor kid partnerless at the finale.)  Still, there is an entire song about coming out – "Stick to the Status Quo," albeit thinly veiled.  So it can be said that Disney is breaking down barriers left and right with this one. 

Still there is an uneasy and subversive undertone to the thing – especially in this stage version, which has excised all but two adult characters.  First, as the "villains" Ryan and Sharpay Evans – big stars with small minds – are twins, and yet their relationship should be reason to pause.  They want desperately to continue their leading role streak with a version of Romeo and Juliet.  How many musicals can you think of with male/female leads where they don't end up romantically involved?  I mean I love my own sister, but Romeo and Juliet?  Eew!  Not to mention Sharpay's treatment of him – Ryan is clearly her slave/confidante/fashion censor.  Again… eew!  Then there is the sadomasochistic relationship that brews between rival faculty members Ms. Darbus (drama coach) and Coach Bolton (basketball coach).  They antagonize and tease each other throughout, only to share a salacious duet during the curtain call.  One has to wonder how this played out in the offices of Disney Theatricals… 

Still, even though there are bound to be a generation or two of kids who will be shocked at what high school is really like once they get there, HSM delivers a mostly positive message about exploring your talents and curiosities.  Perhaps these same generations will be willing to play basketball AND be in The Music Man!  To me, that is success!  And of course, I'm sure all of us can agree that maybe seeing HSM on stage will start yet another generation of kids who go to the theatre regularly.  For that alone, let Disney be praised. 

As one might expect, the production values are quite high, particularly in the area of sets (by Kenneth Foy), which are huge, colorful and as much fun as the show is, which is pretty fun in spite of any flaws!  Ken Billington's lighting is colorful, creates mood easily and really enhances the staging in ways the staging itself falls flat.  Nowhere else in the show do we see its full potential than in the well directed, smoothly choreographed and detailed setting and exciting lighting than in the extended "Audition" sequence.  It seems as if that lone scene were singled out by the creatives.  It is everything HSM could have and should have been. 

The show that opened last night, under the frantic (it never stops moving, suggesting that if it were to stop we might see its flaws) direction of Jeff Calhoun and lackluster choreography of Lisa Stevens, seems to be a production content with being what is expected and nothing more.  That is, they know people expect the film, which is mediocre, but good enough for its audience, so they do little to encourage more.  The result is a rather one dimensional, bland evening.  What Mr. Calhoun doesn't do is capitalize on doing things that you can only do live on stage, and instead recreates moments from the film that are better in that medium because of close ups and film editing.  Case in point: "Get'cha Head in the Game", a potentially exciting number live, which instead uses choreography from the film all across the stage, never focusing on any one or two dancers or doing any fun visual tricks.  The number never takes off and ends oddly.  Even the little ones who sang along didn't know that it was over to clap.   

In fact, none of the full company numbers ever fully take off, rarely building and never coming across like production numbers regardless of the fact that the stage is crammed with people moving with precision.  It doesn't help that the songs are a mish-mash of styles and have no fluency (of course, the songs are credited to a whopping 13 writers!).  Nowhere is this more in evidence than the downright boring 7 minute HSM Megamix/Curtain Call.  It starts and stops, you never know when to applaud the actors or clap along.  The proof is in the pudding when most of the audience started to leave during what they thought was the bows, only to stand in the aisles (so that no one could see) when they realized it wasn't over.  (Note to parents bringing kids to live theater:  whether you like it or not, it is rude to leave during the curtain call.  Applause = thank you.  Teach your child that is the thing to do.  Think how you'd feel working your butt off on a huge Thanksgiving Dinner, only to have people get up from the table and leave your house without a 'thank you' or 'goodbye.')  Instead, Calhoun stages the scene changes like he is choreographing a grand ballet, while Ms. Stevens' dances look mostly like dull replicas of MTV videos from the 80's, only with none of the exuberance or panache. 

Happily, the cast has endless energy and enthusiasm, and they are, to a person, doing 100% with material worthy of about 60% of their talents.  The 34 member cast makes individual characters, and all seem genuinely interested in entertaining us.  As one of the two adults who anchor the production, Ellen Harvey as Ms. Darbus does great work, arms artistically flailing, voice in deep growl, a cross between Norma Desmond and Cruella DeVil, but all with a golden heart underneath.  She is funny and sincere, and has found a great balance between villainess and heroine.  With less to work with, Broadway star Ron Bohmer might have easily called this performance in night after night, but he does well with what he has.  And when he and Ms. Harvey sing that obnoxious duet, one good thing comes of it – we see what could have been had they been given more to do.  (None of the 13 song writers could come up with a song for them?) 

The supporting cast is also very good, including several standouts.  Shaullanda LaCombe (as brainiac Taylor McKessie) tears up the stage with her gutsy vocals and commanding stage presence, while her rival jock counterpart, Shakiem Evans (as Chad Danforth) is a smooth, if less voracious, presence.  Ben Thompson (as Zeke Baylor) has created some nice variations on the love-sick guy stereotype, while Olivia Oguma (as Kelsi Neilson) takes the quiet mousy girl to new, sweet heights.  As Jack Scott, school announcer (a character not in the film, and the one neat stagy thing about the show) Michael Mahany is creatively funny; one imagines he and his character could have quite a voiceover career. 

The four central teens, arch rivals Sharpay and Ryan Evans versus Gabriella Montez and Troy Bolton, here are excellent.  All have fine voices, which thankfully they actually get to show off.  Helene York as Sharpay is perhaps not as bitchy as she thinks she is, but her outrage at being outdone by a new girl is genuine, funny, and oddly touching.  You never want her to win (and you know she won't) but you still kind of root for her.  Bobby List as Ryan manages to play both the fey stereotype and the decent regular kid. This is no small task given the inordinate amount of literal prancing and primping he has been directed to do (he even carries a silver shoulder bag!).  Both have charisma to spare, and I think it would be nice to see them in a vehicle that requires more of them. 

I will say exactly the same thing about John Jeffrey Martin (as Troy) and Arielle Jacobs (as Gabriella).  Mr. Martin has the charm, good looks and vocal power to carry a show, and he does.  The whole thing lifts off the ground every time he's on stage.  Miss Jacobs is decidedly lower key, but equally interesting to watch.  She has a lovely voice and a genuine quality that makes you believe in everything she does.  The best moments of the show are the ones where they sing soaring duets – "What I've Been Looking For" and "Breaking Free" in particular.  And that, I suppose, is exactly what we are paying to see. 

Overall, this is a good show to take kids new to the theatre to.  They will be entertained and they will get a healthy message.  Do you really go to these shows for theatrical enlightenment?  Probably not, but at least an attempt at more would have been nice.


PHOTOS: TOP to BOTTOM: Disney's HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL National Tour. ©2007, Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus; "Auditions" from Disney's HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL National Tour. ©2007, Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus; (L to R) Bobby List as "Ryan Evans" and Chandra Lee Schwartz as "Sharpay Evans" in Disney's HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL National Tour. ©2007, Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus; Arielle Jacobs as "Gabriella Montez" in Disney's HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL National Tour. ©2007, Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus; and John Jeffrey Martin as "Troy Bolton" in Disney's HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL National Tour. ©2007, Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.


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