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Chicago by John Olson

High School Musical on Tour
LaSalle Bank Theatre

Also see John's review of Zombies from the Beyond

For New York Times' Frank Rich it was The Music Man. For me, probably West Side Story, and for so many others who were introduced to musicals at a young age, these shows plus The Sound of Music or Oliver!. The presence of kid characters in these shows gave them a special resonance that started our lifelong devotion to the art form. Disney's High School Musical, though in no way the equal of those shows, is certain to be the show that makes believers out of turn-of-the-new-century kids (and judging from the audience, primarily 'tween girls). Though the writing doesn't rise very far above its origins as a made-for-cable "after-school" musical, Disney's new touring stage production, which premiered in Chicago on August 1, gives it the full Broadway treatment. Its performances and "old-fashioned" (i.e. pre- Phantom or Lion King) production values deliver the sort of excitement and satisfaction that keep musical theater fans coming back for more.

High School Musical

The original High School Musical movie, which premiered on The Disney Channel in January of 2006 and went on to have monstrously successful DVD and CD soundtrack sales, was not a great film musical. It seemed to move awkwardly between book scenes and songs and had nothing special going for it visually. As developed on stage for this national tour by director Jeff Calhoun, it much more comfortable in its own skin. It's a fanciful piece that treats legitimate kid-lit themes in a light and energetic presentational style that works perfectly on stage.

The story is a little take-off on Romeo and Juliet with school cliques substituting for the rival families of Shakespeare's tragedy. Basketball player Troy meets "brainiac" Gabriella on vacation, and though they have a mutual attraction, when Gabriella turns up as a new student at Troy's high school, their friends discourage the growing relationship between them. To further complicate things, Troy and Gabriella decide to audition for the upcoming school musical, a further departure from their cliques and a threat to the reigning diva of the drama club, Sharpay and her twin brother Ryan. The school musical is an original version of, what else, Romeo and Juliet. In real life, Troy's interest in drama would probably lead his teammates to question his sexual orientation, while Ryan's orientation, suggested more strongly here than in the film, might be a source of taunting or danger for him. Things never get that dark here, but I suspect the kids in the audience can fill in the sub-text. Part of the appeal of High School Musical may be that it doesn't force kids to confront these issues directly.

Calhoun knows what he's working with here, and he keeps the dialogue scenes watchable by not letting the cast try to make any more of them than is there. They don't push to make any of the conflict seem more important than it is, or to pretend the lines are any funnier than they are. He's working with an attractive and talented cast that has enough charm to carry the day without pushing. Much of the appeal of this production can be credited to leading man John Jeffrey Martin as Troy. More believable as a middle-class high school jock than the too-pretty Zac Efron of the film, his Troy is likable and modest throughout. A rock singer/songwriter with Broadway credits, Martin delivers his share of the bubble-gum pop score with a not too "American Idol"-ish confidence. His leading lady is played by Arielle Jacobs. She's lovely in appearance and voice and gives a relaxed performance. The soft-spoken demeanor of her character is better suited to the small screen than the legitimate stage, though, and she's bit overpowered by the charismatic Troy.

Martin and Jacobs are given most solid support from the performers playing their friends Shakiem Evans as Chad, Shaullanda Lacombe as Taylor do nicely enough, but it's the even-more-secondary characters that have the best lines and hence are more memorable. Ben Thompson is sweet and funny as the stocky dumb jock Zeke while Olivia Oguma is adorable as the assertiveness-challenged student songwriter Kelsi. Chandra Lee Schwartz' comic-villainess Sharpay is an egotistical and insecure diva, a teen-aged Dorothy Brock, if you will, and she stops just short of the boundary of campiness. Bobby List does well as her flamboyant brother Ryan, but he's given a more sympathetic character here than he had in the movie (as well as a few scenes where he demonstrates an attraction to Troy). Music theater veterans Ron Bohmer and Ellen Harvey capably play Coach Bolton (Troy's father) and drama teacher Ms. Darbus. Both characters are essentially foils for the kids, but these pros know not to push too hard. They patiently await their only opportunity to sing, which is unfortunately not until the curtain call. (By the way, those who have seen the movie will be relieved to know Ms. Darbus here does not pronounce the word "musical" as "musicale" in reference to the school production.)

Calhoun's smart choices in setting the tone for the piece are matched by a quick pace and teenage energy. He comes up with some clever bits of business that were lacking in the movie, like Troy's jock-like loosening up before his callback audition. Though Calhoun's a director/choreographer himself, the dances here are choreographed impressively by Lisa Stevens, who incorporates elements of hip-hop and gymnastics as well as mock basketball moves into the four big production numbers: "Start of Something New," "Stick to the Status Quo," "We're All in This Together" and "Get'cha Head in the Game," in which basketballs drop magically from the flies into the players' hands. There's a clever parody of Broadway styles with Sharpay and Ryan's "What I've Been Looking For" as well.

Public high schools may not exactly be Camelot, but they do have a look that the design team captured nicely to bring us into this world in a very musical theater way. Sets and costumes are realistic enough, but done mostly in a scheme of school colors, red and white, that reminds us we're in an idealized version of a city high school. Kenneth Foy's sets include moving rows of lockers, gymnasium bleachers, traditional front-steps of the school entrance, a cafeteria and institutional hanging lamps. Some Roy Lichtenstein-like caricature posters of Shakespeare and the Globe Theater adorn the homeroom of Ms. Darbus. Wade LaBoissonniere's costumes pull realistically from current teen fashions for the likes of jocks, nerds and skaters as well as the traditional uniforms of basketball teams and cheerleaders, and the hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan completes the picture. The lighting design by Ken Billington works some especially nice magic in the climactic championship basketball game.

The 90-minute movie has been expanded into some two hours of playing time and it helps. The book by David Simpatico fleshes out the characters a little more we get some motivation for Sharpay's insecurity, for example but he mostly uses the line to throw the adults in the audience a few in-jokes the kids probably won't get, like "kiss today goodbye and point me toward detention" and "he thinks Eugene O'Neill was Shaquille's older brother." Mostly, though, the balance shifts in favor of the songs and production numbers, which is a good thing, as the appeal here is in the song and showmanship rather than the drama. Three songs have been added, including "Cellular Fusion," an homage to Bye Bye Birdie's "Telephone Hour" done on cell phones. (Well, somebody had to do it.)

Disney has chosen to put this on the road rather than Broadway, but it's as good a production as much of their Broadway shows (and way better than Tarzan). It probably makes sense to make the show available to as many audiences as possible while the movie and its two upcoming sequels are hot. For those who decry the Disneyfication of Broadway, the decision not to take High School Musical there has the further benefit of keeping a Broadway house available for the likes of plays by Shaquille O'Neal's older brother Eugene. And, if High School Musical doesn't lead its young audiences to someday see a play by Eugene O'Neill, it may at least get them to the theatre named for that playwright to see something like Spring Awakening. (Maybe when they're a little older.)

High School Musical will play Chicago's LaSalle Bank Theatre (18 W. Monroe) through September 2, 2007. The performance schedule is as follows: Wednesdays at 2 pm & 7:30 pm; Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm & 8 pm; and Sundays at 1 pm & 6:30 pm. Please note: there will be an added 7:30 pm on Tuesday, July 31, Tuesday August 7 and Tuesday, August 28. The will NOT be a 2 pm performance on Wednesday, August 8; or a 6:30 pm performance on Sunday August 5 or Sunday, September 2. For ticket information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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