This stage version of the Disney Channel telefilm, in its world premiere here, outstrips its source in scope, accomplishment and artistry, while remaining true to its offhand charms. Judging from the uproarious audience reaction on opening night, this is a show that undoubtedly will find further venues beyond its current, already soldout Minneapolis run.
The sagest prognosticator would have been hard-pressed to foresee the explosive success of “High School Musical,” with its stellar cable ratings, DVDs and CDs flying off the shelves and an audience ranging from targeted adolescents all the way down to younger school children.
Perhaps even harder to imagine is the property’s suitability for stage translation; for all its considerable energy and seemingly laboratory-crafted catchy pop (including a handful of additional new songs for the show), it remains a slim story about teenage love and social acceptance.
It comes as a happy surprise, then, to see the production at Children’s Theater Company under Peter Rothstein’s direction. This is a show that not only breezes past its inspiration in quality, it extracts the best dialogue, movement and sentiment from its source. In fact, it amplifies these elements and generally sweeps up the audience with a lovely wave of optimism for the years ahead — or, depending on one’s age, a wash of selective memory that nearly persuades us it might be worth returning to those tumultuous years.
This stage version dispenses with the TV version’s backstory opening, opting instead for the huge ensemble number “Start of Something New,” in which the 30-plus cast launches into Michael Matthew Ferrell’s spirited choreography. The action is somehow fussy yet streamlined, the intricacies of musicvideo melded to contemporary dance with a sunniness that emphasizes brightness and cheer. Big prerecorded guitars roar, drums thunder and youth is served up with moving elan.
The plot, and a great deal of specific dialogue, emerge unchanged from the source: Basketball hero Troy (Benjamin R. Bakken) meets Gabriella (Katie Allen) on vacation; Gabriella subsequently transfers to Troy’s school, where they learn that, in their everyday milieu, they are part of two opposing cliques (jocks and brains) whose members are not expected to fraternize.
Young love appears thwarted until word comes of tryouts for East High’s annual musical; having bonded over karaoke during their initial meeting, Troy and Gabriella realize they can bridge their differences through the great equalizer of musical theater.
What made the telefilm such a guilty pleasure is here unerringly accented and writ large. Steve Sweere is more gruff and explosive here as Troy’s coach-father, and sibling rivals Sharpay (Laura Otremba) and Ryan (Brian Skellenger) come across as sweeter and more sympathetic. Sharpay is more silly than lethal, and Skellenger turns Ryan into an unapologetically campy sweetheart while hurling himself into his character’s repressed theatrical energy with audience-pleasing results.
Rothstein is a master of scope, as the show frequently offers huge, complicated ensemble numbers, while retaining the charm of the original’s breezy school scenes: the cellphone confiscation in the classroom, the high-minded politics of the musical audition (Beth Gilleland delivers the goods as the tart Mrs. Darbus), the percussive bouncing beat of basketball practice.
As in the original, matters are scrubbed clean of adolescent sex and ennui like an airbrushed yearbook picture. And the show’s final bit of insight — “We’re different in a good way” — doesn’t stand up to further contemplation once you’ve walked out into the night.
But no matter. “High School Musical” has struck a chord in its many forms because it depicts adolescence as a time of possibility, self-realization and an innocent benevolence we would all like to see evinced in life.