If your kid is anywhere from 6 to 14 years old, your household is loony with buzz about a Disney Channel movie whose phenomenal success baffles even its producers. Nielsen Media Research reports that High School Musical—planned as a feel-good, low-budget filler and starring a bunch of no-name teens—captured a colossal 17.1 million unduplicated viewers in that age group during six telecasts from Jan. 20 to Feb. 13, 2006. The CD soundtrack was last year's best-selling album, with its “Breaking Free” vaulting from No. 86 to No. 4 in one week on the Billboard singles chart (the biggest jump for one cut since late in the Eisenhower presidency).
This year's sequel tied with 60 Minutes for the Nielsen lead on Aug. 17. A third installment is in pre-production for 2008. And as you've guessed, a feature-length film is in the works.
Flush with momentum, the Disney peeps have shepherded their cash cow onto the commercial live stage. Touring companies will visit 20 cities between now and July, with Broadway/San Diego hosting a five-day run beginning Wednesday, Dec. 26. I saw the same show in Hollywood several days ago, so now I have an impression—however mixed—of what the fuss is about. If you and your kid like unbridled spectacle in your musical numbers, you'll probably have a completely cool time. But don't forget that TV was this show's original medium, and often enough, the transition to the stage is startlingly uneasy. What began as a hearty campfire now threatens to take out the forest.
If you know Romeo and Juliet, you already have a handle on the story. In fact, the piece is billed as a tongue-in-cheek take on Shakespeare's classic, with two love-struck teens caught in the backlash from their rival groups of friends. East High School heartthrob and basketball jock Troy Bolton (John Jeffrey Martin) has no business in the company of brainy Gabriella Montez (Arielle Jacobs), a math geek who loves Frida Kahlo's paintings—but fate brings them together to audition for the school's annual musical. Both cliques will have none of the evolving romantic interest, and a snooty brother-sister acting duo conspire against the pair to boot. But love and loyalty win out, and unlike Shakespeare's signature couple, the kids live to tell their tale, exhorting us to eschew the ordinary in the pursuit of our dreams.
Great advice, of course, and delivered with the ferocious energy of youth; numbers like “Get'cha Head in the Game” and “Stick to the Status Quo” are impossibly demanding, yet this cast hardly breaks a sweat amid Lisa Stevens' frenetic choreography and Robert Sprayberry's lavish music direction. That's exactly where the problems tend to seep in, though, and not just with those two entries. All 18 songs were originally conceived and staged for the small screen, which imposes its own values on our interpretations—but this show, suddenly free of those restrictions, can't get enough of itself. Many songs read out of proportion, sometimes outlandishly so, to the story's tone and intent; director Jeff Calhoun gasps for breath, determined to fuel the franchise's success—and the medium be damned.
San Marcos native Chandra Lee Schwartz steps up nicely as Sharpay Evans, the two-faced skank who would vie for Troy's heart. As teacher Ms. Darbus, San Diego-born Ellen Harvey is OK, although she anticipates her speeches a little too apparently. They and everybody else are saddled with enormously physical assignments, well-meant but often off point from the spirit that drove this piece to such success in its rightful home. This review is based on the matinée performance of Dec. 16 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. High School Musical runs Dec. 26 through 30 at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., Downtown. 619-570-1100. $17-$100 or www.broadwaysd.com.