Stage adaptation of the Disney family film phenom “High School Musical” is as carefully crafted to bring an aud to its feet as an after-hours pep rally, especially when the gymnasium crowd already knows all the players and cheers by heart. The Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater’s energetic, hey-hey-ho-ho mounting — its young cast making this essentially a high school musical in its own right — illustrates why this wholesome property is destined to replace “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Grease” and even “Legally Blonde” as the avatar of tweener musical theater for the foreseeable future.
Peter Barsocchini’s original screenplay generates a surprising amount of interest and suspense en route to the foregone conclusion that East High basketball BMOC Troy (Noah Plomgren) and shy math whiz Gabriella (Chassey Bennett) will manage to overcome their cliques’ prejudices to win the big game, the lead roles in the spring musicale and each other before the finale.
David Simpatico’s tightened libretto more clearly conveys the theme of becoming what one wants to be instead of following others’ preselected plan. He also wisely changes the school play in question from a generic revue (whose title “Twinkle Towne” might deter even parents from ticket-buying) to “Juliet & Romeo,” a familiar yarn neatly intersecting with the ongoing tussle between jocks and brainiacs.
Not that we ever see much of the final product, since action is focused on the antics surrounding auditions and callbacks, a simple set of complications to which the “HSM” constituency can readily relate: Who’s in and who’s out, socially speaking? Who’s bullying whom and why? And where do the grownups fit in?
Future productions will be lucky to have leads the caliber of those here, with voices and personalities that blend like buttah. Plomgren substitutes a studly, unthreatening vulnerability for Zac Efron’s impossibly dewy good looks, while Bennett maintains Gabriella’s demureness while rocking the house with her ballads.
Their amusing rivals, Drama Club mavens Sharpay (Ivana Agnic) and Ryan (Darius Rose), blatantly channel Karen and Jack from “Will and Grace” (though their status as siblings adds an icky element to the notion of their playing Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers). Tisha Bellantuoni offers a believably flamboyant drama teacher in place of the original’s irritating caricature, and clear-spoken and focused Christina Senesi is a standout as Gabriella’s BFF.
Dwight Richard Odle captures the slightly tacky look of the quintessential high school show, with a charmingly painted front curtain and rolling set pieces frantically toted on and off by the dogged ensemble to the accompaniment of Roxanna Ward’s skillful onstage band.
Equally typically of the school play, Donna Inglima helms two- and three-person scenes with invention and assurance, but as more and more thesps arrive, it’s less a matter of staging than traffic management. Ditto Ellen Prince’s choreography, which features many cute individual moves but can’t make sense out of act one closer “Status Quo,” in which alternating themes of “follow your heart” and “stick with the group” lead to mass chaos. (To be fair, the number is a mess in the movie, too.)
Not so the finale, however, with the film’s pump-pump-clap-spin routine to “We’re All in This Together” as familiar to the entire cast (and much of aud) as pat-a-cake. The East High Wildcats keep repeating and repeating it like a chorus line making with the high kicks until spectators go bananas. Good luck getting that song out of your head days later.