Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Sometimes in the theater, a talented cast, solid direction and strong production values are able to hide (or at least greatly diminish) the fact that the story and songs aren't of the highest quality. This is certainly the case with the national tour of High School Musical. As seen currently at the Aronoff Center, this fun and wholesome show hits all the right notes with its young core audience and isn't the torture that some parents and theater aficionados might have expected.
The story follows a group of high school students in New Mexico in a 21st century sort of Grease, except without the lewdness. Boy (Troy) meets girl (Gabriella) on a school break, they surprisingly find themselves attending the same school, and romance blossoms. But at East High School it's an issue, because the pair wants to try out for the high school musical together. Their friends want them to stick to what they know - Troy to leading his school basketball team to the league championship and Gabriella participating in the Scholastic Decathlon. Throw in some competitive drama queens (siblings Ryan and Sharpay) and you've got the lightweight Disney version of conflict and villains.
The book for the stage version by David Simpatico closely follows the Disney Channel TV movie version by Peter Barsocchini. The characters are broadly defined and highly stereotypical, and the storyline is part sitcom / part after school special of the week quality. Still, some worthy lessons and morals for the many children in attendance are clearly depicted, and lots of laughs are generated from the dialogue. Like the book, the bubble gum pop tunes and predictable and repetitive lyrics of the songs (by a myriad of writers) would be easy to criticize if judged by normal musical theater standards. But that's not what the show is about. The kids come in already having most of the songs memorized (there are a few new ones thrown in), having passed judgment (a positive one) long ago. Even if no one will ever confuse a High School Musical song with that of Sondheim in structure or sophistication, a number of them are extremely catchy and a few of the power ballads may even induce chills.
The years to come will bring numerous productions of this show, but few are ever likely to reach the quality that this national tour attains. The polished and enormously talented cast (many with Broadway credits) is a primary reason. John Jeffrey Martin (Troy) and Arielle Jacobs (Gabriella) are extremely close approximations of their TV counterparts, except that both sing better and bring a bit more charisma to their roles. Helene Yorke (Sharpay) and CCM grad Bobby List (Ryan) are perfect comic foils as the not-very-menacing rivals to the leads in the school musical, and they sing and dance with great skill. Cincinnati native Ron Bohmer does well as Troy's dad, and Ellen Harvey chews up the scenery playing drama teacher Ms. Darbus. Also lending worthwhile support are Shakiem Evans, Ben Thompson, Shaullanda LaCombe, Olivia Oguma, Michael Mahany and Lizzie Wells. The show also boasts one of the hardest working ensembles on tour right now, with plenty of well-executed high energy dancing throughout the show.
Director Jeff Calhoun creates some smart stage pictures and has non-stop action in his blocking that prevents even an ounce of boredom from setting in. He's also wise to ensure that his lead characters convey some heartfelt emotions in their acting that stops the show from being merely a live-action commercial for the DVD of the movie. The constant twirling of the set pieces during scene transitions does get a little old, though. Choreographer Lisa Stevens provides many young, modern and hip dances for her agile cast, which always serve the piece well, and Robert Sprayberry capably leads a high-octane band.
The set design by Kenneth Foy is impressive, with the numerous high school locales brought to life with nice attention to detail. The lighting by Ken Billington brings focus to the often busy and well-populated stage, and the costumes by Wade Laboissonniere are fun and appropriate. The only complaint about the national touring production is that the sound seems muddled at times, especially during the group numbers.
Probably the greatest compliment and asset of the stage adaptation of High School Musical, especially in its national tour production, is that it will introduce a whole new generation to the joys of live theater. If for that possibility alone, the creators are to be encouraged and applauded. The fact that the vast majority (all except those expecting to see the TV cast) of young theatergoers driving ticket sales are bound to have a delightful time is just the icing on the cake. The show runs in Cincinnati on March 9, 2008. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.-- Scott Cain