Book by David Simpatico (based on the Disney Channel movie by Peter Barsocchini)
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
Choreographed by Lisa Stevens
Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions at the National Theatre
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Ah, high school … illicit drug use … teenage pregnancy … functional illiteracy, and a culture of brutish violence running the gamut from bullying to mass murder.
Not on your life! at East High in Disney’s High School Musical, set in Albuquerque and, apparently, in 1955. Nevertheless, anyone who is willing to give cynicism the night off is in for a fun-filled, fast-paced songfest and dance extravaganza.
HSM is cut from the same cloth as Grease, Footloose, Hairspray and American Idol. (Folks “of a certain age” might even see a parallel with the comparatively Paleolithic, Bye Bye Birdie.)
If you liked Mama Mia!, you will likely enjoy High School Musical.Park your cynicism, I repeat, and you will discover that Disney delivers quality product by insisting upon top notch talent in both the creative team and the cast.
Disney serves up universal plot #3 (“Summer Nights”: unite a star-crossed couple, one a brain, one a jock) with subplot #7 (“Sing out, Louise”: toxic parent lives through child’s success) and subplot #23 (“All About Eve”: ambitious ingénue attempts to sabotage rivals). There are lots of sly references to other shows as well, especially the Oz-laced Wicked Witch zingers aimed at Sharpay Evans (Chandra Lee Schwartz), leader-wannabe of The Clique.
East High has a science and math club on the brink of statewide triumph, a basketball team on the cusp of the playoffs, and an annual school musical languishing for lack of talent. Transfer student, Gabriella Montez (Arielle Jacobs), wants to cut a low profile at her new school, but she soon blows her cover to reveal her intellectual and musical genius. Moreover, she’s younger than spring-time, sweet as a blossom on the summer air, and a truly wholesome, all-American beauty rose. Troy Bolton (John Jeffrey Martin) is the basketball team captain and son of coach (Ron Bohmer). He’s surfer dude handsome, but not California shallow (700 miles long, 400 miles wide, ¼ inch deep); the boy has unplumbed depths.
Arielle Jacobs has a Neve Campbell winsome quality and a strong set of pipes. Her Romeo (Martin) is totally clean-cut, straight-arrow, “leading man” material. Jacobs and Martin have a wonderful chemistry and their duets soar. Tony and Maria (sorry, that was a West Side High Story) Gabriella are contenders for the leads in Juliet and Romeo, the annual school musical, a venue heretofore dominated by Sharpay (as clique commandant) and her twin brother, Ryan (Bobby List).
The not-so-evil twins, Sharpay and Ryan, bump up the action as they try to salsa their way to the leads in the school musical. Only in HSM can salsa seriously rule among adolescents in 2008. Schwartz manages to meld both Amber Von Tussle and Amber’s mother (“Miss Baltimore Crabs”) into her delightful performance. She occasionally overworks the shrill and whiney aspects of the character. List is Mr. “I Can Do That,” who plays second banana to his ambitious sister but matchers her talent gene for gene.
These are some noticeably strong performances from other young actors in what normally would be considered supporting roles — so well performed here that they command center stage. Shaullandra LaCombe plays Taylor McKessie, science wiz and major school firebrand. She needs Gabriella to cinch the science prize, but when push comes to shove, she won’t sacrifice her friend for the win. If you see Disney High School Musical on Tour while Ms. LaCombe is in the cast, you will see a mighty talent. Ben Thompson, playing hoopster Zeke Baylor,contributes to the humor when he comes out … of the pantry. The boy has a passion for baking.
Drama teacher Ms. Darbus (Ellen Harvey) brings to mind Eve Arden (TV’s Our Miss Brooks in the 1950s and later in Grease and its sequel). She can crack wise with the best of them. Along with Coach Bolton (Ron Bohmer), neither adult gets to sing more than a few bars at the end of the show. What a waste of vocal talent.
Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes are smart. He gets to show some fashion flare when dressing Ms. Darbus and Sharpay. Kenneth Foy’s sets are eye-popping and clever. From classroom, locker room, backstage and even a botanical garden, the intricately designed sets really move and keep scene changes flowing seamlessly. They hold immense visual appeal. Ken Billington’s lighting design keeps the show dazzlingly bright, although sooner or later his revolving spotlights will hit the wrong person in the audience dead on and cause a seizure. Sound designer Duncan Robert Edwards has truly impressive credentials, which makes me wonder if his design is being faithfully implemented. Many people left the show with a ringing in their ears. Miss Saigon may have its helicopter, but at one point in HMS I thought a 747 was lifting off into the audience. You could feel the bass vibrate your chair and rattle your teeth.
Jeff Calhoun’s direction is spot on, fusing the creative teams’ work and the cast into a rollicking evening. Lisa Stevens’s choreography is a delight with a major dose of youthful athleticism. Her work on “Get’cha Head in the Game” is inventive, both fun and daring, as she works bouncing basketballs into the teams’ song and dance.
The show has great appeal for pre-teens, young teens and adults. For older teens and young adults, I’m not sure if it’s considered “cool” to like a wholesome Disney show. If not, it’s their loss.
Running Time: 2:25 with one intermission.
When: thru Feb 17. Tues – Sat at 7:30; Sunday at 6:30; Matinees: Saturday at 2 pm and Sunday at 1 pm
Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20004
Tickets: $41.50 – $126.50. Purchase by calling 800 447-7400 or online
Info: Visit the website.
To read our Kids Stages review by Jonny Perl, click here.