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THEATER

Another splashy event for the kids

Slick and artificial, 'HSM2' leaves a hunger for the original's good old faux naivete.

August 12, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

The lesson of "High School Musical 2" is a poignant but familiar one to readers of Romantic poetry -- how quickly the bud of youthful innocence is gone! One minute you're wide-eyed and helplessly bursting out in song; the next you're eyeing your BlackBerry and ready to throttle your agent for low-bidding your next gig.

Not that the gang from East High School has entered the big time. The setup of the sequel merely has the kids working at the ritzy local country club. Sharpay Evans, the semi-villainous Paris Hilton-Britney Spears wannabe, has pulled strings to get a cushy summer job for Wildcats superstar Troy, who in turn persuades the club's stern manager to hire all his pals.

She's angling for him to sing a duet with her at the talent show, an annual occasion for her to hog the spotlight before fellow members. He's merely trying to stay true to himself, his friends and, of course, his sweetheart Gabriella -- and if he can let loose onstage in front of a bunch of rich, well-connected bores, well, it doesn't mean that he's not also a jock, right?

No, Troy, you're cool. (Just don't start singing songs from "Pippin" back in the school locker room.)

But something has changed. There's a new blow-dried self-awareness to the performers, who seem to have caught on that they're part of a Major Pop Cultural Phenomenon. Previously their characters wanted to show themselves and one another what they could do; now the objective seems to be for the actors to wow their management.

The realism of "HSM" may have been sketched only in Magic Markers, but the action this time around might as well be animated. The cord with observable reality has been cut. We're in the land of music-video fantasy for a pre-teen target audience amid a mega-epiphany concerning the opposite sex.

"Rent" and "Hairspray" were detectable influences in "HSM"; here, it's "Clueless," "Legally Blonde" and the fancy chapeaus and fleet moves of Justin Timberlake. The borrowings from coming-of-age flicks are too numerous to mention. Does anybody really want me to dredge up from my own adolescence "The Blue Lagoon," "Caddyshack" or that Kristy McNichol and Tatum O'Neal summer camp comedy? Oh, yes, "Little Darlings" -- positively Felliniesque by comparison.

There's nothing remotely spontaneous or live-seeming about this "musical," which is so artificial that it makes even the big talent-show scene seem as though it were filmed under a vacuum glass. When this version tours the country as a theatrical road show, it will be closer to the "American Idol" losers' concert than anything that might have once graced Broadway in its less cheesy days.

But maybe I'm being cranky because I miss that quality of unjaded surprise in Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens' gooey stare. So what if it was a case of faux naivete! Yes, Troy and Gabriella have to grow up and discover the pleasure and pain of romantic love, not to mention the difference between having money and connections and having a measly paper route. But what I wouldn't give for one last moment to see them in their insecure days, before their Disney blockbuster fall.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

McNulty is The Times' theater critic.

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