Wednesday, July 01, 2009

From screen to stage

'High School Musical' at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse

“High School Musical,” which will be at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse through July 12, is what you call critic proof. No matter what I say, the core audience — preteen and teen girls — is going to see it even if they have to drag their parents along with them.

The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company is putting this on for one reason and one reason only: money. And who can blame them? In this economy, they need a surefire hit — and “High School Musical” is it.

The film that inspired the stage version was the most viewed Disney Channel original movie at the time of its release in 2006. The film’s soundtrack was the highest selling album of that year. There have been two sequels, the last of which was released theatrically and went onto gross more than $250 million worldwide. If opening night at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse is any indication, the “High School Musical” money train is still chugging along.

“High School Musical” is basically a reworking of “Grease” with two high schoolers from opposite cliques never expecting to see each other again after meeting over a break only to find the girl has transferred to the boy’s school. In this case the cliques are the jocks and the brainiacs.

Troy (Matt Kacergis) and Gabrielle (Noellia Hernandez) shake the foundation of the school by breaking away from their respective cliques to try out for the high school musical, a rewrite of “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending. I laughed at that line, but apparently it wasn’t a joke and “High School Musical” is essentially just that, a modern update of “Romeo and Juliet” with none of the tragedy, plenty of music and everyone learning to get along.

Before proceeding with a critique of the content, I should make it absolutely clear that I am not faulting director Clay James' production, which was well choreographed, designed and performed by a talented cast that rises above the slight material and gives vibrant performances. Fans of the movie will not be let down.

Leads Kacergis and Hernandez, stepping into the roles played by Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, are appealing and have powerhouse vocals that genuinely impress. There is some nice comedic work put in by Alison Rose Munn as the drama teacher; Alex Lafrance as the student who does the school announcements; and Michael Luongo as the put-upon brother of Sharpay, the show’s villain. Their quirky performances kept me most interested.

“High School Musical” is inoffensive, harmless fluff that spoon feeds the audience its message to be who you truly are. The message is probably what appeals to young viewers and it is a good message, but does it have to be delivered in such an obvious, formulaic way? Come on, the writers couldn’t even give the show a proper name.

The writing doesn't have any edge, but there is one line delivered by Sharpay (Merissa Czyz) that surprised me. It was an insult that went like this: “I’d rather suck the snot out of a dog’s nose until his skull caved in.” I wanted more dialogue with that sort of bite. Even though the target audience likes it just fine the way it is, they deserve better.

But I’m clearly not the target demographic for this. The preteen and teen girls in the audience seemed to love it. During intermission they could be found at the bulletin board with the cast headshots debating who the cutest actors were.

Even for all my complaining, seeing musicals live is always more dynamic than seeing them on TV. A well performed live performance of even so-so material is almost always more compelling than a filmed version, and this is certainly well performed. And maybe, just maybe, some “High School Musical” fans will get hooked to live theater in general. One can dream.

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