The multimedia juggernaut that is Disney’s “High School Musical” continues to roll out with this legit follow-up that will have kids — much, much younger than the teen characters on stage — begging to check out the summer vacation exploits of Troy, Gabriella, Sharpay, Ryan and the rest of the G-rated gang. No matter that there’s really not much to follow up on. For many in the audience with less-than-discriminating tastes, just revisiting their fave characters in any format is enough as long as it’s presented reasonably well. In this stage sequel premiering (like its predecessor) at Atlanta’s Fox Theater, their wish is Disney’s commercial command.
The professional legit preem fulfills the requirements of the market-tested template: with satisfactory production values, perfs and energy. That it fails to transcend the merely expected doesn’t seem to bother the audience terribly — though responses to some of the numbers feel a little wan. The sophomore effort lacks the freshness, charm and especially the can’t-get-them-outta-my-head songs that turned the original into a sensation — and a cottage industry.
None of the performers on stage are from the original TV movie (most have moved up a considerable pay grade). But the replacements do an OK job conveying the basic characteristics of hero, girlfriend and rich bitch (minus the b-word).
The high school kids (and from their size a few appear to have stayed back quite a few years) in this story now have summer jobs at a swank country club where they are rehearsing for its talent show.
Teen diva Sharpay (Rebecca Faulkenberry) once again aims to snatch hero Troy (Anderson Davis) from sweet Gabriella (Arielle Jacobs). There’s also Sharpay’s snappy brother Ryan (Bobby List), best bro Chad (Jelani Remy), dim-but-sweet Zeke (Paul Downs Colaizzo) and assorted others who fit single-adjective descriptions. Supporting characters and subplots are dispatched with a line or two, with the main narrative focused on the leads’ romantic tug-of-war. (Unlike the TV version, the class distinctions of the haves and have-nots are pretty much gone, draining the story of conflict that the original HSM supplied with its jocks-versus-geeks battle.)
So there’s not much of a larger struggle beyond Troy’s meltdown (even a hunk has his inner demons) and pretty-but-bland Gabriella walking away from it all. (She’s been through this before and even she seems bored by it.) There are no surprises with the formula this go-round as the plot inevitably unfolds and the dialogue drips with corn, cliches and pseudo-slang (“Hip-hop hooray,” gushes one character).
Most disappointing are the tunes — especially given the long list of credited songwriters and the professional standards established with the original movie/show’s infectious melodies. Even when the songs try to mimic superior predecessors, they fall flat. Sharpay’s “Fabulous” lacks the wit, motivation or character development of “Popular” from “Wicked,” while Chad’s “I Don’t Dance” is dramatically confusing and at best a weaker version of “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” from “Footloose.”
The ballads are better, sung nicely by Davis’ strong-voiced but far-from-swoonable Troy, and pretty Jacobs’ Gabrielle, this generation’s Annette. List is a sharp standout as Ryan, and Patrick Richwood has his moments as the frazzled resort manager — the only adult character on stage.
The show’s production values are fine, especially Kenneth Foy’s colorful and whimsical sets (with a big hat tip to Disney stablemate “Aida” for its splashiest design). But regardless of its lack of wow, this legit sequel should score well in future stagings — no doubt receiving a boost from “High School Musical 3” still in multiplexes and further fueling interest in all things HSM.