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THEATER REVIEW

Onstage, 'High School' raises a franchise's grade

December 17, 2007|David Ng | Times Staff Writer

In the parallel universe of "High School Musical," teens don't drink or smoke. They don't swear or make crude remarks. Acne has been eradicated. And, of course, no one ever talks about s-e-x.

Only Disney could conjure a vision of adolescence this devoid of reality. And the company has made a fortune selling this fantasy world. "High School Musical" originally aired on the Disney Channel in 2006 and became an overnight sensation. That spawned a chart-topping soundtrack as well as a sequel, which aired in August.

Now comes "High School Musical: On Tour," running through Sunday at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. An almost scene-for-scene, song-for-song replica of the first movie, this theatrical extravaganza offers little that is new or surprising. Why mess with a successful formula? In a few crucial ways, however, it's the rare imitation that proves superior to the source.

The original movie cast (led by Zac Efron and Vanessa Anne Hudgens) is playing hooky from this incarnation. This may disappoint hard-core "High School Musical" fans, but their loss is the theater world's modest gain. In the roles of East High School lovebirds Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez, newcomers John Jeffrey Martin and Arielle Jacobs bring genuine acting chops and big voices. They're more than just pretty faces -- and that goes a long way in bringing their cardboard-cutout characters to life.

As in the movie, Troy and Gabriella meet during a winter-break party when their friends goad them into singing a karaoke duet. This cues the first musical number, "Start of Something New," which serves as the show's recurring theme. Back at school, Troy is surprised to run into Gabriella, who has just moved to the area. He's the school's basketball star and hangs out with the "Jocks"; she's a "freaky math girl" and thus falls in with the "Brainiacs."

"High School Musical" owes much to "Grease" in its portrayal of intramural life as rivalrous. But whereas the latter show found momentum in a current of raging teen hormones, "High School Musical" waddles along with its chastity belt firmly in place. These characters are idealized versions of what parents wish teenagers would be. In this respect, the show projects a nostalgia for an era that probably never existed.

What gives this production its advantage over the movie is the meta-theatricality at work. It turns out that uber-jock Troy secretly aspires to be a musical actor. On a whim, he decides to audition with Gabriella for the lead roles in a school production of "Juliet and Romeo." (It's a neo-feminist interpretation, declares the ostentatious drama teacher.) Friends and family try to dissuade them, but the couple hold true to their calling.

"High School Musical" ultimately feels better suited to live performance than to the screen. In the movie, Efron declared his passion for theater, then his moves were edited into something resembling dance. In the same role onstage, Martin performs his numbers without any digital aid. And unlike Efron, he does all of his own singing.

The writers (of whom there are more than 15) have added a few new numbers and minor characters but nothing that significantly alters the story. The show's best song remains "Stick to the Status Quo," a celebratory ode to nonconformity that director Jeff Calhoun ("Big River") and choreographer Lisa Stevens have staged to show-stopping effect.

The colorful supporting cast helps offset the lead characters' essential blandness. Thespian-club villainess Sharpay (Chandra Lee Schwartz) is convincingly nasty, and the drama teacher (Ellen Harvey) is a spot-on parody of gushy artsy types.

"You have given me hope for the future of the American theater," the teacher tells her students in one scene. Endearing though it is, this unstoppable franchise is unlikely to leave audiences with a similar sense of optimism for the craft.

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david.ng@latimes.com

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'High School Musical: On Tour'

Where: Kodak Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $23 to $73

Contact: (213) 480-3232 or www.kodaktheatre.com

Running Time: 2 hours

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