During this Syracuse Children’s Theatre production at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Carrier Theater, a telling moment comes late in the second act that explains much about the High School Musical phenomenon.
As the lovers Troy and Gabriella croon their third duet, the low-key but passionate “Breaking Free,” the audience at opening night broke into rhythmic applause, keeping time with the music. Such acceptance might have been wind under the wings of performers Ryan MacConnell and Maria Rotella, but their restraint signaled they understood what was happening. It was not just welcome familiarity, what audiences feel when they hear “I Feel Pretty” in West Side Story. Instead Disney’s High School Musical is less than a year old. The audience craving for the show is so passionate and so new that people stampede to see it performed live in a new format seeking reaffirmation.
While the rest of the world was occupied elsewhere with such distractions as the seeming collapse of the American occupation of Iraq or Britney Spears’ lack of undies, this Disney Channel TV movie has become a national craze, like the second coming of the Beatles, but only among a certain age strata of the population. Let’s ignore for the moment that made-for-television movies are supposed to be a debased art form and that Marshall McLuhan long ago told us TV was the “cool” medium which did not engage the emotions.
High School Musical’s music is not from the golden Disney team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) but instead from 13 tunesmiths you may not have heard of, although Robbie Nevil attained some chart success in the 1980s. People outside the target market for High School Musical will find the score bland and unremarkable, but what do they matter. For the millions of fans who embrace High School Musical, it’s aural ecstasy.
Judging from the ages of the onstage performers and wide-eyed fans in the audience, one must assume High School Musical’s primary demographic is not 14- to 18-year-olds as expected from the title. The appeal skews younger, to junior high kids, or high school wanna-bes gearing up for the battleground they long to enter. These ears grew up on Barney, Yanni and Sesame Street, and now hormones have been added to mix.
Syracuse Children’s Theatre producer Todd Ellis, among a zillion other pundits searching for a shorthand description of this pop-culture sensation, has described High School Musical as the Grease of our time. That’s a useful analogy but not quite accurate. Grease began on small-time off-Broadway and took a while to find an audience, whereas High School Musical opened wide and deep. Further, Grease is a spoof, mocking the self-seriousness of lunch-room turf wars. High School Musical, on the other hand, is straight and earnest, without any hint of irony or camp.
One look at the 62 performers in any of the four versions of Syracuse Children’s Theatre’s High School Musical tells you that the show’s creators see high school as a battleground of large warring factions, the Skaters, the Cheerleaders, the Brianiacs, the Jocks and the Thespians. All except the Cheerleaders have male and female members, and each has its own dance routines, choreographed by Joe Walker.
Pretty soon we realize that the Jocks and the Thespians are the principal combatants, in part because their schedules, the big game and the big show, conflict. They both have adult representatives, too: terrible-tempered Ms. Darbus for the Thespians and frequently exasperated Coach Bolton for the Jocks. Ms. Darbus wants to put on a student-written feminist retelling of Shakespeare titled Juliet and Romeo, and she often gets the upper hand in debate. Darbus: “Don’t play dumb with me.” Bolton: “I’m not playing.”
A shy newcomer named Gabriella Montez tries to find her way across this battlefield. Early on she gains an ally in one of the top jocks, Troy Bolton, the coach’s son, whose loyalties are divided between music and sports: “My head’s in the game, but my heart’s in the song.”
Thwarting Gabriella’s advance to the lead in the play, and a warm place in everyone’s hearts, is the only villain in the piece, the Thespian queen Sharpay Evans. She says of herself, “I was named for a Flemish dog.” At this point the story line of High School Musical resembles 42nd Street, with Sharpay as a razor-fanged Dorothy Brock and Gabriella as the conquering innocent, Peggy Sawyer. There’s never a great deal of suspense about how this will come out, but going into auditions student actors should have known that the performer playing snotty, stuck-up Sharpay will have some of the most fun. (On opening night Gabrielle Leo used a heavy Valley Girl accent to add crackle to Sharpay’s lines.) Other rewarding roles are the playwright-pianist Kelsi and the smart-mouth student P.A. announcer Jack Scott.
Four separate casts of more than 60 players each does not mean that the total enterprise puts 240 kids on stage. As someone remarks in High School Musical itself, there tends to be more female talent around than male. Thus there are four different female performers in one role, such as Gabriella (alternately played by Maria Rotella, Rachel Robinson, Stephanie Bouvia or Mariah Atkinson) or Sharpay (Gabrielle Leo, Jennifer Shuron, Amanda Indick or Jennie Riverso), over the four different casts, while the trio of Nick Vozzo, Ray Winterhalt and Noah Kaplan share the supporting role of Chad Danforth. Vincent Cioci as Zeke Baylor, however, is a constant amid the four casts. Other characters and their performers include: Ryan MacConnell or Danny Cioci as Troy; Katie O’Leary, Angela Pugliese, Caitlyn Sparkes or Chloe Leibrick as Kelsi; Aaron Alexander or Chris Botash as Jack; Blair DeForge, Melanie Zehner, Helen McCreary or Ellie Law as Ms. Darbus; and Steve Milana or Dave Zehner playing Coach Bolton.
As producer, or as he titles himself “executive director,” Ellis auditioned hundreds of kids. Keeping them all in line and just getting their names right in the program must have been exhausting. Ellis prudently turns other decisions over to Dan Tursi, the director with the best street cred in community theater, who actually puts shape and tension into this mass of humanity. And Jon Balcourt leads a four-player orchestra in the music that wins a thousand young hearts.
This production runs through Dec. 23. See Times Table for information.