Stage review: CLO's 'High School Musical' full of cheer

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The students of East High celebrate their unity in Pittsburgh CLO's "Disney's High School Musical."
By Christopher Rawson
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It began with incessant bombardment by TV, DVD and CD, followed by a lengthy siege of praise for marketing clout, then a crescendo of local anticipation.

And now the real thing is here -- the professional stage version of "Disney's High School Musical," adapted from the record-breaking, all-everything TV movie and soundtrack. Ta-da!

And I have to ask, from my middle-aged, doubtless irrelevant point of view, what all the fuss has been about.

Don't get me wrong, "High School Musical" is an engagingly youthful musical about high school cliques and love conquers all, a lively contemporary version of such familiar fare as "Grease" and "Bye Bye Birdie" (not to mention a faint hint of "Romeo and Juliet"). And the CLO, with the substantial assist of director Jeff Calhoun and a production that is about to morph into the national tour, has done it proud.

But that's all. Granted, I'm a "High School Musical" virgin, never have seen or heard the Disney TV movie or score (I know, it's hard to believe), but I did take along a bright native informant, Alex Linn, 15. And granted, I'm not the target demographic. But I kept waiting for the revelation, and although it's a sweet show with endearing performances, I just don't see what the talk of "breakthrough" is about.

Well, yes, I do. It's about that marketing pizzaz and the hordes of excited, cheering pre-teens. (I hear about it from my grandchildren.) But let's leave discussion of that to the business pages and look at the show itself.

In other words, this is a review. It appears almost a week after the first performance because the CLO didn't invite critics until the weekend. And the show has definitely benefited from having had this extra time to polish and settle -- I wish every CLO show had a similar margin.

The story is simplicity itself: the fictional East High School is dominated by four cliques -- jocks, brains, skaters and thespians. It's winter, so the jocks are all basketball players, getting ready for the championship game (plus cheerleaders, who never get to talk, just dance and sing). The brains are getting ready for a science competition. The skateboarders, who in a grittier environment than high school by Disney we'd call the druggies, just, well, lie around.

And the thespians are about to audition for the annual musical, a new feminist version of "Romeo and Juliet," although that's a red herring, because we never really hear anything more about it.

Then jock Troy meets brain Gabriella, a new girl in town (though they did meet over winter break, a la "Grease"), and suddenly his repressed artistic side flowers. Against peer and adult pressure, they audition for the musical, which brings them into conflict with the established thespian stars, twins Sharpay (think Patty Simcox in "Grease," but more of a witch) and Ryan (who's gay, if such is possible in the Disney world).

Will Troy's and Gabriella's young love triumph over loyalty to their friends? Over the machinations of Sharpay? Over the stereotypical thinking of the two adults, head thespian Ms. Darbus and basketball coach Bolton (Troy's father)?

Be serious.

Believe me, I'm not giving anything away when I say the kids miraculously contrive to work together and win every competition, with everyone ending happily paired up, including a few improbable duos you can see coming from two states away.

That everything ends happily is one of the show's limitations, breaking the law of comedy that a happy ending is sweeter if it isn't universal. Well, Ryan is left without someone, but that just registers as casual homophobia. In real life, Ryan will get his later.

My point is that the book by David Simpatico (a name so perfect it must be made up) is too safe by half. The school is completely generic, with no sense of place, except possibly for an enigmatic reference to New Mexico. The divisions between cliques are too genial. There's no racism, no pain, except for the villain. Nothing much feels really at stake.

And while I call these limitations, doubtless they are the very essence of Disney's success -- blandness sells better nationwide -- and of the show's appeal to its target audience.

My own enthusiasm goes mainly to the performers. John Jeffrey Martin and Arielle Jacobs are totally winning and even fairly believable as Troy and Gabriella. Shakiem Evans and Shaullanda LaCombe play the comic second couple well, and there are a few supporting eccentrics (Ben Thompson, Lizzie Weiss and Olivia Oguma).

Chandra Lee Schwartz tears a passion to tatters as Sharpay, and Bobby List's Ryan turns out not to be a baddy after all. Ellen Harvey is deliciously over the top as Darbus, and my favorite character is Michael Mahany's Jack Scott, the school announcer (a character not in the movie).

The cheery score is written by a huge team and seems so, having more bounce than heart, but several songs drill their way into your head by dint of repetition. Kenneth Foy's set is remarkably flexible.

It's a huge cast -- 30 pros plus 20 kids from the CLO Academy -- and choreographer Lisa Stevens and director Calhoun use them all in big numbers that tell the show's real story of working together on stage to a pleasurable end. That's the story of the plot, too, just as it is of every one of the more than 100 high school musicals that take place every spring in southwestern Pennsylvania.

No one's going to argue with that.


Michael Mahany, playing Jack Scott, the high school newscaster, shows he can do more than talk, watched by Bobby List and Chandra Lee Schwartz as king and queen thespians Ryan and Sharpay.
Click photo for larger image.
'Disney's High School Musical'

Where: Pittsburgh CLO at Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Through June 17; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.; 1 p.m. June 7 and 14. $21.50-$57.50; students half-price; 412-456-6666.

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Arielle Jacobs as Gabriella Montez and John Jeffrey Martin as Troy Bolton in CLO's "Disney's High School Musical.

Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.


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