itself feels like an Ike-era time capsule, with its abundance of
squeaky-clean family values and a soft-rock score churned out by a
platoon of pop songwriters. Indeed, if there was a 1959 version of High School Musical, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello would have surely played the starry-eyed leads.
Twin trouble: Meegan Midkiff and Marshal Kennedy Carolan in Merry-Go-Round’s High School Musical.
So the folks mounting the current production of High School Musical
at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse already know that it’s far, far
away from a lasting musical-theater monument, but that drawback doesn’t
stop them from having a good time. Chances are that the audience also
already knows where the show’s plot, a generous mix of cliques and
cliches, is headed.
During a five-day span at East High
School, mathlete Gabriella Montez (Alyssa Herrera) and hoops dreamer
Troy Bolton (Michael Parker Ayers) discover their hitherto unknown
gifts for carrying a tune and acting up a storm. Alas, the callbacks
for a Shakespeare revamp named Juliet and Romeo take place at
the same time as Troy’s crucial basketball game and Gabriella’s
participation in a science showdown with her fellow students. Can these
kids find room for their respective artistic muses, not to mention
consummating their own chaste romantic yearnings for each other?
A “fun fact” listed in Merry-Go-Round’s playbill states that High School Musical was initially conceived as Grease 3
back in 1999, with then-starlets Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake
considered for the main roles. Since the Disneyfication of Grease’s
much beloved rock’n’roll spoof would have been deemed heresy, it’s just
as well that the eventual project would be anointed with the more
generic title High School Musical. People forget, however, that the 1978 movie version of Grease with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was also homogenized for mass consumption; the stage show has much more randy gusto.
In contrast, High School Musical
is deliberately inoffensive and un-edgy, a safe harbor for youngsters
in the audience who sing along with the play’s characters, while adults
in tow understand that the show’s backdrop is strictly Neverland. (No
King of Pop references intended.) So the book adaptation by David
Simpatico poses a real challenge for director Kate Swan, in which she
strives to make the characters sympathetic without resorting to
cornball emotions, while ensuring that the tongue-in-cheek moments of
humor never lapse into nudge-your-ribs parody.
Swan’s central casting calls,
thankfully, ring true. Michael Parker Ayers, a gangly dirty blond,
makes for an appealing Troy, whether he’s spooning with Gabriella, or
sparring with his basketball coach (T.J. Mannix, sporting lots of
heart-of-gold gruffness), who also happens to be Troy’s dad. Alyssa
Herrera supplies a winning performance as Gabriella, a
brains-and-beauty character who never ventures into nerd territory.
Of course, various types of geekiness
lurk on the perimeter, such as bespectacled budding playwright Kelsi
(Arin Lee Dandes in an enthusiastic turn) and public-address announcer
Jack Scott (Sam Underwood in a role not found in the TV-movie), who
bills himself as “the velvet fog of East High” for all you Mel Torme
fans out there. The school’s drama coach, Ms. Darbus, kicks in some
goofy sports malapropisms like “football diamond,” with the spot-on
timing of actress Rachel Black accentuating her character’s laugh
lines. And Meegan Midkiff steals scenes galore as drama-queen diva
Sharpay Evans, accompanied by Marshal Kennedy Carolan as Sharpay’s fey
twin brother Ryan.
A key difference between the TV-movie
and stage version rests with the ways in which musicals have been
dumbed down by Hollywood. In the film media, every musical number must
now include jarring, fragmented edits and needless close-ups to
simulate visual movement, instead of letting the camera merely capture
the high-stepping action. Needless to say, the dance elements in
Auburn’s production consistently outshine the Disney Channel’s
boob-tube hoofers, with Merry-Go-Round choreographer Lori Leshner
letting her cast’s happy feet do the talking, especially in the
full-scale cafeteria hoedown “Stick to the Status Quo.”
High School Musical’s revved-up
retro vibes already make the show feel like its own revival, yet if it
lures those tweens in the MGR audience to sample other
honest-to-goodness musicals down the road (the company opens No, No, Nanette on July 22), then everybody wins.
This production runs through July 18. See Times Table for information.