After conquering the TV, CD, DVD, concert tour and legit stage markets, one of the few places left for the “High School Musical” phenomenon to go was on the ice. That skater-blade version has taken off with a vengeance, with three separate companies of “Disney’s High School Musical: The Ice Tour” packing arenas around North America since the fall and a further 100 engagements booked between now and May, many of them extending to Mexico and Europe.
It’s a clever move on the part of Feld Entertainment, which has been marketing the Disney on Ice brand for dozens of years now. In recent seasons, there’s been a certain apathy in many of the big markets as a younger generation resisted watching anonymous performers skating around in giant papier-mache masks representing characters from the latest animated Disney effort.
But with “High School Musical,” a whole new world of young performers are allowed to appear as they are, which creates a strong and instant bond with the crowds of kids who fill the audiences.
As for the work itself, director Jeff Calhoun, who oversaw the stage musical version, has combined both “HSM” telepics — screened 18 months apart on the Disney Channel — into one show. This makes the ice show a fast-paced entertainment, with little time for anyone to catch their breath. But it also makes an already-thin book even thinner, with a lot of the subplots and adult characters that provided some grit or interest melting away.
We’re left with the basics: Basketball jock Troy falls in love with science brain Gabriella and they find true happiness working on the high school musical — despite the machinations of evil drama queen Sharpay and her even queenier brother, Ryan. The second half largely recycles the plot of the first, moving from high school to summer resort, but it all starts to get a bit familiar.
What carries the show along to victory in the eyes of the young audiences is the cheerful pop score (written by over a dozen composers) and the eager-to-please energy of the cast. Yes, they all lip-synch to recorded tracks (except for Kelsi, the composer of the eponymous musical, who narrates the action), but they perform with zest and succeed in landing some impressive skating moves while doing so.
The major dynamo is Jordan Brauninger as Troy. Besides being impressively handsome, the 20 year-old Brauninger has had a lifetime career in skating, rising to the level of 2004 World Junior Bronze medal winner. As the basketball star, he’s given appropriately athletic leaps that draw gasps from the audience and translate his character in figure skating terms.
Less fortunate is his counterpart, the sweet Nina Greschner, as Gabriella. How do you skate excitingly during a Science Fair? If there’s a way, the creatives haven’t found it yet. However, Sandy Rucker has lots of sass and verve as the witchy Sharpay, which comes in handy especially during the second act.
Trimmed down to a CliffsNotes version of the plot, “Disney’s High School Musical: The Ice Tour” may be a bit bewildering to anyone who has never encountered the material in any of its precious incarnations. But for the fans, it’s one more chance to cheer the songs, story and characters they love. It should be filling arenas everywhere for sometime to come.