Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"Disney's High School Musical" is a genuine phenomenon, generating the largest audience for an original made-for-cable movie ever, over seven and a half million viewers on its first run and countless more on its endless repeats. It also spawned a sequel, the biggest selling album of last year, and the inevitable franchise of merchandising tie-ins. A good part of the original film's success had to do with the hot teen idols in the leads, Zac Efron as the sensitive jock, Troy, and Vanessa Hudgens as the brainy, new girl in school, Gabriella. Additionally, though, the story borrows the classic plotline of "Romeo and Juliet," substituting social cliques for family enmity and giving it a rousing happy ending that's all musical comedy.
As one would expect, the entire production has the Disney gloss of manufactured expertise and a surefire balance of catchy tunes with reassuring messages about being true to yourself and not allowing others to define you. I don't want to sound like I'm dismissing or trivializing this, because it is actually a very solid show, and it's clearly in tune with the voice and attitude and expression of this generation. Besides, what isn't artificial about a musical? If it delivers entertainment, energetic music and dance, and sympathetic characters then it is to be admired regardless of its barely hidden corporate premeditation.
Still, a Broadway musical belongs on stage, not on television, and Seattle Children's Theatre has mounted an extremely competent and entertaining production, under the solid and expert direction of Linda Hartzell, with excellent musical direction by Mark Rabe and surprisingly complicated and interesting choreography by Kathryn Van Meter. The cast is disciplined and invested (and mostly the right age to be playing high school kids) and the leads are all very good. I saw the show with two eleven year old girls who were a bit unsettled when they looked at the program and saw that the actors didn't really look like the stars from the movie. It didn't take them long to recognize that this was not a recreation of the film on stage, but something new. By the end of the performance, the entire audience was enthusiastically appreciative of what they had seen, and completely won over by the show.
As the clique-crossed romantic pair, Jason Kappus and Kasey Nusbickel were talented and pretty convincing. Kappus has an athletic build and just the right sincerity for the school sports hero who wants to sing in the school musical. The synchronized ball-handling and dance number, "Get Your Head in the Game" was really quite an excellent piece of theatrical choreography, combining sports, teamwork, individual skill and musical performance with dance. As the brilliant new student, Gabriella Montez, Nusbickel was delightful, with a sweet, strong voice and terrific energy, combining an attractive wholesomeness with sheer vivacity. There was a good romantic connection between them that managed to be about attraction but without much real sexual tension, perfect for this material.
Of course, the baddies had to be represented as well, and Khanh Doan has a great time with the incessantly fabulous social diva, Sharpay. Her reluctant partner and factotum was comically played and danced by Don Darryl Rivera. Jayne Muirhead has great fun with the Drama coach and artistic entrepreneur, Ms. Darbus, and I also enjoyed John Patrick Lowrie as the self-centered Coach Bolton, who happens to be Troy's father. He carries about the only dramatic weight in the show, and he has just enough gravitas to make that thin thematic strain work.
I don't think it's worth looking too deeply for great consequence or even the remotest innovation in this show. It's formulaic and completely traditional in terms of musical theatre. It's also extremely well-done. This highly professional production team has shaped a talented and entertaining cast into just the right ensemble to make the show feel like it's happening to these characters for the first time, and to make us feel like we're seeing these problems and values and resolutions being achieved for the first time. This is Disney's "High School Musical," but Seattle Children's Theatre makes us believe this story belongs to these kids, and that lets the show belong to this audience. It all works, almost like it's happening for the first time once again.