The freshly scrubbed faces of the stars of "High School Musical" teasingly kick off the highly anticipated sequel with the sure-to-be-hit song "What Time Is It?" Clearly, it's time for "High School Musical" hysteria, round two. At this point, star Zac Efron could stand in front of the cameras reading the phone book and millions of girls would watch. Thankfully for viewers, and the rest of the equally talented cast, the new telepic offers plenty to tune in for.

The freshly scrubbed faces of the stars of “High School Musical” teasingly kick off the highly anticipated sequel with the sure-to-be-hit song “What Time Is It?” Clearly, it’s time for “High School Musical” hysteria, round two. At this point, star Zac Efron could stand in front of the cameras reading the phone book and millions of girls would watch. Thankfully for viewers, and the rest of the equally talented cast, the new telepic offers plenty to tune in for.

In fact, Hollywood might want to take note of just how director-choreographer Kenny Ortega and writer Peter Barsocchini eluded the sophomore slump with this winning sequel to the Disney Channel megahit.

Proving that lightning can and does strike twice, “High School Musical 2″ actually surpasses the first movie in sheer energy and verve. Granted, Ortega and Barsocchini don’t stray too far from the original formula: Instead of jocks vs. art and math geeks, it’s the haves against the have-nots, with scheming diva Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) making sure the class divide stays nice and wide.

While Efron proves the shelf life of his swoon factor has yet to expire, the movie lends enough time to other cast members, who prove worthy of the spotlight. Tisdale, who in the first film served more as comic relief and nasty foil to the lovelorn Troy (Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), practically steals the whole sequel. Corbin Bleu and Lucas Grabeel as Chad and Ryan, respectively, also get more of a chance to show off their pipes and dancing skills, giving the pic a true ensemble feel. Of all the main characters, Hudgens takes a bit of a backseat, but her star shines nonetheless.

Life is a little more complicated this time around for our Wildcats, and Troy and Gabriella “shippers” need to take heart: The couple face some rough waters ahead, thanks to the conniving Sharpay. A world beyond high school is ebbing closer for the rising seniors, and Troy feels the weight of planning and paying for college on his shoulders. Gabriella is just happy to be staying in one place for a change and wants to enjoy the summer with Troy.

Most of their school chums find jobs lifeguarding and slugging meals and golf clubs at the Lava Springs Country Club, owned and ruled by Ryan and Sharpay’s parents. It seems like a win-win situation, as they surmise in the big group sing, “Work This Out.”

Sharpay has other plans for Troy, though — namely, dangling carrots such as college scholarships and court time with the local university b-ballers in exchange for singing with her at the Lava Springs talent show. With the keys to the club literally in Troy’s hands, he’s soon jumping through hoops instead of playing them with his best buds.

“High School Musical 2″ is a bit of a misnomer, considering these kids are only at East High School for a few opening scenes: It’s summer, which means it’s time to have fun and make some money for dates, cars and college. Amid all the folly and footwork, however, are typical teen issues; even straight shooters like these kids have trouble navigating their way to college. The foppish Troy sums up teen angst perfectly when he proclaims, “I always liked the idea of being in charge of my future until it actually started happening.”

Of course, it’s hard to worry too much for characters who break into song with a flair reminiscent of Frankie and Annette. Cynical minds would dismiss it as fluff, but the sheer talent involved won’t allow it. Once again, the movie provides a string of infectious tunes, with standouts including “You Are the Music in Me,” “All for One” and Sharpay’s remix version of “Music in Me,” a hilarious sendup of the ridiculous trappings of manufactured pop stars.

The choreography isn’t groundbreaking or even that original, but it works here. Ortega cleverly incorporates a Stomp-like acumen into several numbers, deftly utilizing the surroundings, props and energy of his stars to maximum potential.

What’s stands out most about “High School Musical 2″ is that despite their newfound and overwhelming fame, the actors all seem wholly committed to their characters and the franchise. And refreshingly enough, they all look reasonably close to the ages that they portray.

High School Musical 2

Disney Channel; Fri. Aug. 17, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed on location in Salt Lake City by Salty Pictures and First Street Films. Executive producers, Bill Borden, Barry Rosenbush; producer, Don Schain; director, Kenny Ortega; writer, Peter Barsocchini;

Crew

camera, Daniel Aranyo; editor, Seth Flaum; music, David Lawrence; casting, Jason LaPadura, Natalie Hart, Jeff Johnson. 120 MIN.

Cast

Troy Bolton - Zac Efron Gabriella Montez - Vanessa Hudgens Sharpay Evans - Ashley Tisdale Ryan Evans - Lucas Grabeel Chad Danforth - Corbin Bleu Taylor McKessie - Monique Coleman Kelsi - Olesay Rulin Zeke - Chris Warren Jr. Martha Cox - KayCee Stroh Jason Cross - Ryne Sanborn Ms. Darbus - Alyson Reed Coach Bolton - Bart Johnson Mr. Fulton - Mark Taylor

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