Review: ‘High School Musical’

Show should draw plenty of pre-teens who know the material inside out, and help the ledger of the venerable New Jersey theater, which barely escaped extinction in June via a $9 million bailout by the town of Millburn.

There was a time when the phrase “high school musical” suggested juniors and seniors donning wigs and face-paint to mount “Fiddler on the Roof” or “Oklahoma!” in the auditorium. That was yesterday, or rather pre-2006. Today, HSM means one thing only: Disney’s phenomenally successful franchise, staged extensively in the last 18-months but only now reaching the New York area in a five-week stint at Paper Mill Playhouse. Show should draw plenty of pre-teens who know the material inside out, and help the ledger of the venerable New Jersey theater, which barely escaped extinction in June via a $9 million bailout by the town of Millburn.

Teen tuner has been a goldmine from its initial airing in January 2006 and was an immediate candidate for stage mounting. Within months “High School Musical” was on the boards, and within a year the script was available for professional licensing. Show benefits from a title now better-known than “Hamlet,” with a built-in audience who not only know the show by heart but arrive in official HSM shirts and jackets, bearing logo-emblazoned umbrellas, purses and what-have-you. Downside is that some discriminating viewers, who have watched the DVD dozens of times, might be critical of the changes necessitated by adaptation — not to mention the absence of hearththrob Zac Efron and his posse.

Paper Mill’s production — using the Disney-sanctioned adaptation with book by David Simpatico and music adaptation by Bryan Louiselle — is a reasonable facsimile of the telepic, with staging by a.d. Mark S. Hoebee that is adequate without enhancing the material. Hoebee is greatly aided by choreographer Denis Jones, who pumps the proceedings with energy.

Two brief basketball sequences are nicely handled, effectively spreading the ensemble through the auditorium for the audience-pleasing finale. Kenneth Foy’s functional scenery has been imported from Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars, which produced the show’s first professional run in Jan. 2007 and is currently premiering the stage incarnation of “High School Musical 2.”

Chase Peacock and Sydney Morton head the cast as lovebirds Troy and Gabriella. Both are personable, singing all those now-famous songs that don’t exactly relate to the characters they are playing (and no wonder, coming as they do from 13 different songwriters).

Bailey Hanks — direct from the lead in Broadway’s “Legally Blonde,” which she won courtesy of MTV’s “Search for the New Elle Woods” — has the showy part of mean girl Sharpay and gets most of the good lines. She makes the most of them, abetted by Logan Hart as her droll and less-evil twin. Krystal Joy Brown, Stephanie Pam Roberts and Justin Keyes are especially supportive as friends-to-the-stars, and ensemble member Dante Russo provides a handful of unlikely laughs as an inchworm in the drama class improvisation scene. The adults are handily played by Donna English and Patrick Boll.

While this TV musical version of a high school musical has been expanded into a stage musical, the end product doesn’t quite make it a Broadway musical. That’s not to say Broadway hasn’t seen $10 million-plus extravaganzas that are far weaker. But while it does have a colossal brand, this “High School Musical” doesn’t have the power or drive of, say, “Legally Blonde,” to name one show pitched at the same demographic.

Somebody with a sense of humor, though, has caustically pasted a “Glory Boys” poster on the set.

High School Musical

Paper Mill Playhouse; 1,200 seats; $92 top

Production

A Paper Mill Playhouse presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Matthew Gerrard, Robbie Nevil, Ray Cham, Greg Cham, Andrew Seeley, Randy Peterson, Kevin Quinn, Andy Dodd, Adam Watts, Bryan Louiselle, David N. Lawrence, Faye Greenberg and Jamie Houston, book by David Simpatico, based on the Disney Channel original movie written by Peter Barsocchini. Directed by Mark S. Hoebee. Musical direction, Bruce W. Coyle. Choreography, Denis Jones.

Creative

Sets, Kenneth Foy; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Tom Sturge; sound, Randy Hansen; music adaptation, Bryan Louiselle; production stage manager, Jess W. Speaker III. Opened, reviewed Nov. 9, 2008. Runs through Dec. 7. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Troy Bolton … Chase Peacock Chad Danforth … Justin Keyes Zeke Baylor … Sean Samuels Gabriella Montez … Sydney Morton Taylor McKessie … Krystal Joy Brown Jack Scott … Joseph Morales Sharpay Evans … Bailey Hanks Ryan Evans … Logan Hart Kelsi Neilson … Stephanie Pam Roberts Coach Bolton … Patrick Boll Ms. Darbus … Donna English
With: Deanna Aguinaga, Adrian Arrieta, Kristy Cavanaugh, Brittany Conigatti, Beth Crandall, Charity Sharday De Loera, Dean de Luna, Sean Ewing, Zach Frank, Taylor Frey, Marissa Joy Ganz, Spencer Kiely, Sam Kiernan, Victoria Meade, Christopher Messina, Joline Mujica, Dennis Necsary, Krista Pioppi, Dante Russo, Becca Tobin.
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