Though last Sunday night was my first exposure to anything associated with the Disney triptych of made for television movies carrying the banner, High School Musical, it's my guess, judging from the enthusiastic reception the production received from an opening night audience loaded with young theatergoers, that fans of the series will not be disappointed. Paper Mill does their usual highly professional job, with a talented, energetic cast delivering Mark S. Hoebee's buoyant, quick-paced direction with gusto and singing attractively under music director Bruce W. Coyle. Denis Jones' choreography nicely fits the athletic and cheery requirements of the show's atmosphere and the design elements are sharply delivered via Kenneth Foy's kinetic set, Wade Laboissonniere's colorful, clique defining costumes and Tom Sturge's celebratory lights.
And if you are one of the eighty bajillion teenage and tweenge fan of High School Musical, you should stop reading this review right now. Really. The rest is just a lot of blah, blah, blah that wouldn't interest you.
Okay, here we go.
How do I begin to describe what bland, lifeless material this is? Yes, the Paper Mill crew does what it can and there are even one or two miraculous moments when they squeeze something out of this undercooked, unseasoned oatmeal of a musical that kinda, sorta resembles entertainment. But really, the gap between this show's popularity and its accomplishment is so wide they may as well call it The Reagan Administration: The Musical.
The story has potential, even though the happy ending is achieved by our heroes committing acts of vandalism. Basketball star Troy (Chase Peacock) and math whiz Gabriella (Sydney Morton) fall seriously in like with each other while singing a karaoke duet at a ski lodge during winter break. But when it turns out she's been transferred to his school Gabriella learns that the social structure of the clique hierarchy forbids jocks from hanging out with brains.
Neither group hangs out with the thespians either, perhaps because they're headed by the annoying pair of self-centered Sharpay (Bailey Hanks) and her twink twin brother, Ryan (Logan Hart). Oddly, nobody seems bothered by the fact that these biological siblings have been playing the leads opposite each other in every school production since grade school and are now auditioning to play the young lovers in the new student-written neo-feminist revisionist Shakespeare musical, Juliet and Romeo.
Gabriella also wants to try out but for some unexplained reason kids must audition for the leads as a couple and will only be cast along with their partner, so Troy agrees to join her in auditioning. When word gets out that the captain of the basketball team has crossed accepted social lines it encourages the rest of the student body to be more open about having diverse interests outside of their cliquish boundaries and we soon find out that, among other things, a jock has a secret desire to be a baker and a brain enjoys dancing hip-hop.
And while the important theme of celebrating our personal differences as we bond into a community is great one to pass along through musical theatre, David Simpatico's book, based on Peter Barsocchini's screenplay, is at best innocuous and at worst horribly unfunny. If lines like, "I'd rather suck mucus from a dog's nostrils until his nose caves in," and "We need to save our show from people who think Eugene O'Neill is Shaquille O'Neal's older brother," are examples of what passes for wit nowadays I weep for the future of musical comedy bookwriting.
Thirteen people are credited with having written the evening's songs and none of them were able to come up with a memorable melody or a clever lyric. The score is made up almost entirely of sound-alike light rock ensemble numbers expressing obvious sentiments ("Get'cha Head In The Game," "We're All In This Together") while chances to explore the inner workings of individual characters through song are, save for one duet by the leads, completely ignored.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of High School Musical is its mocking attitude toward musical theatre. While the school athletes and smart students are respectfully depicted, the ones in the drama club are shown as being delusionally talentless and their bad auditions are treated as punch lines. The fine actress Donna English is reduced to playing the eccentric drama teacher as a vindictive ninny who leads the kids in ridiculous theatre games and goes out of her way to favor the students she wants to cast. The introverted Kelsi (Stephanie Pam Roberts), who wrote Juliet and Romeo would like to have Troy and Gabriella star in her show because they sing her big song like an American Idol-ish riff-heavy power ballad while Sharpay and Ryan sing it like, you know, a showtune.
Now there are those who will say that I shouldn't be so hard on a show that's aimed toward kids and may get them to be regular theatergoers. I say that if you teach kids at a young age that musical theatre is dumb material dressed up with high-energy performances they'll have no reason to expect it to be any more.
Photos by Gerry Goodstein: Top: Joline Mujica, Zach Frank, Joseph Morales, Adrian Arrieta, Stephanie Pam Roberts, Becca Tobin, Charity Sharday De Loera, Sean Ewing, Krystal Joy Brown, Sean Samuels, Beth Crandall, Justin Keyes, Marissa Joy Ganz, Brittany Conigatti, Sam Kiernan, Dennis Necsary, Taylor Frey, Deanna Aguinaga and Kristy Cavanaugh; Bottom: Becca Tobin, Justin Keyes, Zach Frank, Deanna Aguinaga, Bailey Hanks, Logan Hart, Dennis Necsary, Joline Mujica, Krista Pioppi, Sean Samuels, Beth Crandall and Victoria Meade
You'll please pardon me if the following paragraphs do little more than perpetuate Raul Esparza's reputation as a critics' darling, but aside from enjoying the rhythmic blasts of misguided testosteronic swagger in David Mamet's toothy 1988 satire of Hollywood muscle, there is little to recommend in director Neil Pepe's mounting of Speed-the-Plow except a look at the 21st Century's most versatile New York stage actor (Who else can go from starring in The Normal Heart to dancing "The Old Bamboo" in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?) in a showcase role that takes delicious advantage of his exceptional skills.
It's the old art versus commerce battle played in three taut scenes as movie producer Charlie Fox (Esparza) lucks into a chance to sign a big name action star in a prison picture if he can have the deal done by the next morning. He takes the news to newly promoted executive Bobby Gould (Jeremy Piven) who has the option to green-light one project a year without approval from the higher-ups. In between discussions of exactly how much money they can make from this sure-fire blockbuster, Charlie bets his partner-to-be that he can't bed the timid temp secretary (Elisabeth Moss), so Bobby assigns her to read a new novel by some "Eastern sissy writer" called The Bridge or Radiation and the Half-Life of Society, which he's been asked to give a courtesy read, and has her come to his place that night to get her opinion on its potential as a film.
Admittedly, Charlie is the role with the most potential to dazzle (Ron Silver won his Best Actor Tony playing him in the original production) and Esparza shapes him into a hyper-caffeinated left coast variation of Tom Wolfe's "Master of the Universe." His musically-savvy performance jostles the listener with intriguing tones and rhythms that dig up unexpected laughs and chills from Mamet's text, such as the moment when Charlie's well-guarded desperation churning inside leaks through by way of a simple half-laugh. And he can somehow coldly deadpan with ferocious energy.
Jeremy Piven is never believable as someone who has achieved even mid-level pull in this lion's den, seeming more like a lost mail-room boy who has mistakenly wandered into the wrong office. In their lengthy scenes where Mamet's electric give and take should be bouncing off the walls, Esparza pings and Piven never pongs. Elisabeth Moss is a barely noticeable presence. I'm not sure she even picked up a paddle.
Photo of Raul Esparza and Jeremy Piven by Brigitte Lacomb