Good grades for ‘High School Musical’

Posted: July 13, 2007

Disney's latest juggernaut and hedge fund has checked into the appropriately named Academy of Music in the form of High School Musical: The Musical.

The boisterous production, here through July 22, is an obvious one. Last year's High School Musical, seen by 170 million kids, easily lends itself to the stage, with some additional lyrics, a few lines, a kiss(!) but generally the same winning alchemy. The result is attracting as many giddy girls to the Academy than The Nutracker, though in decidedly more casual dress.

The plot? Does it matter? So, it's Grease meets West Side Story. Sort of.

Gabriella Montez is a "brainiac" but can really sing. Troy Bolton is a jock but can really sing. And they really, really like each other. They get together. They break up. They get together. They break up. This goes on every few minutes and every other song until the curtain falls. Everyone learns to abandon the "Status Quo" and that "We're All in This Together" and this is the "Start of Something New" and the importance of "Breaking Free."

Those are all songs, by the way.

The first shock, and it may take fans an act to recover, is that there is no Zac. Zac Efron is the movie's Troy Bolton, basketball star/tenor and love object of every girl between ages 3 and 14 whose family has cable. He's the David Cassidy of this moment.

John Jeffrey Martin has the uneviable job of portraying Troy on stage and does so winningly. Considerably taller, he actually looks like a basketball player and possesses a wonderful singing voice. This, however, may be lost on girls pining for bangs and bovine eyes.

Martin is paired with the stunning Arielle Jacobs, and they make a fetching musical pair. Also terrific in the production are Ellen Harvey as theater teacher Ms. Darbus and Bobby List as Ryan, Disney's most fey character since Prince Charming.

My friend Emma, 13, says "the second half is a million times better. Everything was more believable." Her sister Isabel, 9, "really, really liked it" and grades it an A. And they're the audience that counts. HSM is lost on kids under 5, and there were several in the Thursday night audience, babbling throughout.

The music, composed by seven different writing teams, is loud, and some songs are decidedly better than others. To these ears, "We're All in This Together" sounds remarkably like the Full House theme song. This is not meant as praise.

High School Musical is foremost about singing, and the choreography is neglible. The costumes, sad to say, are nigh on to hideous and clash constantly. Just because a girl's a brainiac doesn't mean she's condemned to plaid.

The biggest problem is the speed at which the action is rushed along, as if the entire cast downed too many Red Bulls. Director Jeff Calhoun has coached Chandra Lee Schwartz, as the scene-stealing Sharpay, to rush through her comic lines at warp speed, earning nowhere near the laughs she should. Comedy is about timing and nuance.

Slow HSM in parts, quiet it a bit, and the show would be even better. These rapturous fans have more patience and intelligence than they're being credited with.


Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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