Regional Reviews: New Jersey
High School Musical Live! and Lively on Stage at Paper Mill
Also see Bob's review of It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues
Originality is not the point here. High School Musical recycles plot and style elements from Grease, several other stage musicals, and enough family films to fill a catalogue. It also recreates the Disney Channel film on which it is based along with its major characters as closely and accurately as any musical stage adaptation reasonably could.
High Schoolers Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez meet cute when they are selected to sing karaoke together at a ski resort party. Upon his return to Albuquerque's East High School, Troy finds that Gabriella has just transferred into the school. Troy is the star of the school basketball team and the son of its coach. Gabriella is a brilliant student who is being sought by the more scholarly girls to participate in the "science decathlon." When Troy and Gabriella both decide to audition for the leads the school musical, each of their crowds, "The Jocks" and "The Brainiacs", selfishly plot to break them up to stop them from participating in the school musical.
Sharpay and her acolyte brother Ryan are the leaders of a third crowd of students, "The Thespians." They are the perennial leads in the school musical. Sharpay, who has her eye on Troy, will stop at nothing to make certain no one usurps her place as the star of the show.
For the most part, the stage cast duplicates the look and persona of their screen counterpoints with accuracy, and often out perform musically the technically enhanced screen vocals. Chase Peacock (Troy) sings strongly and displays solid musical stage presence and an individual personality. Sydney Morton (Gabriella) looks just like her screen counterpart and, although she performs nicely, there is a lack of wattage in her performance. Justin Keyes (Chad), Sean Samuels (Zeke), Krystal Joy Brown (Taylor) and Joline Mujica (Martha) as the young couple's best friends duplicate their screen counterpoints with eye-catching aplomb and bright enthusiasm.
Bailey Hanks (Sharpay), although a bit more over the top than necessary, enthusiastically captures the comic tone of her character. Logan Hart (Ryan) is likeable, but cannot match the show-stealing excellence of his small screen counterpart. Stephanie Pam Roberts (Kelsi) is letter perfect in recapturing the look and persona in the diminished role of the student show author. Joseph Morales (Jack) is amusing in the added role of the student announcer for the school public address system.
There is one performance and role interpretation that far exceeds that in the original film. Donna English (Ms. Darbus) has abandoned the extreme and extremely annoying caricature of the drama teacher, adding to both her humor and likeability. No more an addled martinet in league with Sharpay in discriminating against Troy and Gabriella, English's drama teacher is now a sympathetic victim of Sharpay's manipulations. Its too bad the Disney team didn't write a song, a true theatre song, for this role.
One of the best qualities of both the movie and stage musical is the sweetness of its characters and storytelling. Even at the beginning, there is little animosity among the various school groups, and, in short order, friendships are forged across group lines within the student body believably and with ease. In many of today's high schools, tolerance among various crowds is more common than the mean spirited divisiveness which is depicted in other teen musicals which may well be a step behind the curve. There is almost none of the nasty, vulgar put down "humor" that informs most of today's youth oriented comedy in the film. There are but two or three such lines in the stage musical. They likely are included to placate older teenagers. If lines invoking a barf bag, mucous and flatulence are in the film, then I didn't watch it closely enough and stand corrected. In any event, High School Musical on stage would be an even better entertainment without them. Still, High School Musical must be commended for promoting positive values in a musical which provides irresistible entertainment for its young target audience.
David Simpatico has faithfully adapted Peter Barsocchini's screenplay. While the set up and motivations are somewhat more difficult to follow than they are in the film, a couple of small plot adjustments increase credibility. Director Mark Hoebee has kept everything moving briskly, most ably obtaining polished and enthusiastic performances from his very young, largely unseasoned 31 member strong cast. Choreographer Denis Jones has done a fine job of providing lively choreography with a fully professional sheen. The skimpy but adequate scenery was originally designed by Kenneth Foy for Atlanta's Theatre of the Stars, and re-built for the Pittsburgh CLO. The scenery, whose major motif is school lockers, gets the job done.
Paper Mill's stage production is decidedly a better entertainment than the Disney Channel original movie of the same name on which it is based. The movie scores points with clearer storytelling, added colors with the larger presence of adults (on stage, Gabriella's mother does not appear, and Coach Bolton is less dimensional), and an excellent number which Sharpay and Ryan perform for their "call back" which is buried by the manner in which it is presented on stage.
However, the likeable and harmless movie is a teen romance with music rather than a fully realized musical. About half its eight songs are sung as either audition songs or karaoke. Although there are only three additional songs in the stage version (and the audition and karaoke contexts remain), the additional songs, extended musical numbers and a closing mega mix manage to turn High School Musical into a full-fledged stage musical. The pop score by a small army of composers and lyricists is bland, but peppy. As often happens when I see pop song style musicals, I sometimes found myself wondering why the same lyric is repeated so boringly often. Whereas the pleasant and harmless movie never raised my pulse, the stage musical strongly rises to the occasion of the first act finale with its version of "Stick to the Status Quo." This is an upbeat, lively dance number which clearly finds the students dismissing the notion of staying locked into a stereotype and hiding their interest and talents in areas which extend outside the boundaries which define their group.
At the intermission, I spoke separately with two young people who were attending the opening with their families, believing that their take on High School Musical would be more relevant than mine. In response to my questions, Teddy, age 11, opined, "I like it a lot. I've seen a couple of shows before, and I would like to see more in the future." His mother reminded Teddy that the last show that he had seen was Mamma Mia!. Bridget, also age 11, estimated that she had seen seven previous shows and added, "I really like it ... the scenery, the songs and most of all the choreography and I definitely want to see more shows." Bridget's mother added that this was her first time at Paper Mill and that she was very impressed with the quality of its production. I took the opportunity to recommend Paper Mill's spring musical 1776 as an excellent musical for families. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the new audience which Paper Mill is now attracting returned for that great family friendly classic? I had intended to speak to additional youngsters after the end of the performance, but my visual and aural observation of the delight of so many youngsters during the musical's later stages rendered further such efforts superfluous.
What makes the Paper Mill High School Musical special is the transporting delight of expertly performed, directed and choreographed live musical theatre entertainment that cannot be matched on any screen. The delighted squeals and giggles, and smiles on the faces of the many youngsters in attendance as "the brainiacs" and "the jocks" enter the auditorium to watch, along with them, as Troy and Gabriella's call back audition for the leads in the school musical will delight all, but the most stony hearted. The extended and expertly choreographed finale, "We're All in This Together," brought a delighted smile to the face of this critic who is certainly not in the demographic at which High School Musical is most successfully aimed. As it is giving Paper Mill its biggest box office success in recent memory, if you are inclined to see The High School Musical, it would be wise to purchase your tickets as soon as possible.
Disney High School Musical continues performances through December 7, 2008 (Evenings: Wednesdays, Thursdays & Sundays 7:30 p.m.; Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m. / Matinees: Thursdays, Saturdays & Sundays 2 p.m. - No perfs. Thurs. Nov. 27Add'l. Perfs. 11/25 7:30 p.m. & 11/26-2 p.m.) at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Disney High School Musical Book by David Simpatico; Original Songs by Matthew Gerrard and Robbie Nevil; Ray Cham, Greg Cham and Andrew Seeley; Randy Petersen and Kevin Quinn; Andy Dodd and Adam Watts; Bryan Louiselle; David N. Lawrence and Faye Greenberg; Jamie Houston; directed by Mark Hoebee