'High School Musical' makes the grade
Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
Disney's ability to deliver the goods - wholesome family fare - doesn't get any better than "High School Musical." The phenomenally successful TV movie, which might make musicals cool with teens (OK, maybe not) has been adapted for the stage, first seen in the Boston area at the North Shore Music Theatre this past summer, and now at the Citi Wang Theatre, where a Disney-produced national tour is playing through Sunday.
The story line is a re-imagined "Grease," with basketball jock Troy (John Jeffrey Martin) and brainy Gabriella Montez (Arielle Jacobs) meeting and falling for each other over the New Year's break only to find that, back in school, it's complicated trying to have relationship with someone outside your clique. When the lure of the school musical draws them out of their expected paths, it opens up possibilities for lots of other students. What makes "High School Musical" an effective drama is that Peter Barsocchini's script, adapted for the stage by David Simpatico, and the series of foot-tapping songs, manage to maneuver around some dangerous cliches without becoming cloying.
For the stage version, there's not much room to fool around, since the legions of fans of "High School Musical" have every scene memorized (what? You don't have the DVD game?), so director Jeff Calhoun smartly focuses on keeping the energy high and the pace lightning fast. His ensemble delivers with impressive gymnastics and terrific vocals, but perhaps since the tour is playing large houses, the emphasis is on all the "big" effects, so smaller dramatic moments tend to get lost in the shuffle.
Choreographer Lisa Stevens tries her best to match the intensity of movie director Kenny Ortega and she succeeds in the wonderful timing of "Get'cha Head in the Game" as players spin and dance and basketballs bounce in time to the music. She also allows the company to have a lot of fun in the "Auditions," a production number that enjoys referencing any number of musicals, including "A Chorus Line" and everything by Bob Fosse. It's a wonderfully busy number that manages to zoom in on individuals and then open up to include the crowd, without missing a beat.
There's a lot of moving set pieces and lights that fly up and down, and it's to Calhoun's credit that he doesn't allow all of that to slow the show, but it sometimes feels as if the performers have to travel far before they get to where they need to be. The large playing area works best when it's divided into three areas for the key scene in which drama queen Sharpay (Chandra Lee Schwartz) and her brother Ryan (Bobby List) are performing "Bop to the Top" while Troy is in the big game and Gabriella is in the lab for her competition.
But really, this production is all about the chorus numbers, and even the curtain call becomes an event, with the inclusion of an unexpected duet featuring Coach Bolton (Ron Bohmer) and Ms. Darbus (Ellen Harvey), the drama teacher. Why not? As the song says, "We're All in This Together."