While the professional road-show version of “High School Musical” can’t at this point be considered the “Start of Something New” — one of many hit songs that catapulted the 2006 Disney Channel movie to unprecedented success on DVD, CD and as an arena concert tour — it’s certainly an inevitable and well-produced extension of something big. Large, loud and likable, the show is faithful to its source, amping up both volume and cheeriness with a cast of 34, while acing the high school milieu with genuinely impressive design work. By its closing number, celebrating both individualism and togetherness, “HSM” has managed to become sheer ebullience.
For those who have remained immune to the charms of this tyke and tween phenomenon, “High School Musical” follows handsome jock Troy Bolton (John Jeffrey Martin) and “brainiac” new girl Gabriella (Arielle Jacobs), who discover after a Karaoke quickie that they’d really like to try out for the school show.
But their cliquish peers fear such experimentations, so Troy and Gabriella must battle the judgments of his basketball teammates and her fellow academic decathletes, the expectations of Troy’s coach (who’s also, natch, his dad) and the campy villainy of the drama club titans, all of whom seek to scuttle their audition and thus their secret dreams.
The bubble-gum pop from a variety of songwriters, sung to the hilt here by the talented cast, all revolves around the central theme of an individual’s ability to expand horizons. Thus titles like “Breaking Free” and act-one closing number “Stick to the Status Quo,” in which all the jocks, brainiacs and skateboarder dudes and dudettes explode in a cacophony of conformity in the school cafeteria.
Director Jeff Calhoun, who helmed the previous Broadway revival of “Grease” and the terrific Deaf Theater version of “Big River,” certainly has a keen understanding of youthful vibes. The show pulsates with peppiness — Calhoun must have cast this on a treadmill to test the endurance of his ensemble — and moves with remarkable fluidity, thanks in large part to Kenneth Foy’s sets, most of which wheel on and off.
The stage, with big, bulbous track lighting hanging from the flies, transforms easily and convincingly from classroom to gymnasium (replete with big bleachers and giant banners) to science lab to locker room. Many of the images painted on the rolling walls — the portrait of Shakespeare in the room of super-arty drama teacher Ms. Darbus (Ellen Harvey), for example — are crafted in a faux-Warhol pop style that matches the general happiness of the ultra-colorful costumes.
Overall, the production finds a effective balance between reality and stylization in both design and performance, and creates a fully involving world. Given the relatively straightforward nature of the adaptation — no animal stampedes to stage — Calhoun finds the right moments for jolts of theatricality. His staging of the climactic final seconds of Troy’s championship game, with the basketball on a big stick illuminated by a precision spotlight, trusts smartly in the audience’s willful imaginative participation.
There are definitely areas for potential improvement. Martin is certainly appealing enough as a romantic lead and definitely believable as a basketball player, but he could invest Troy with more sincere vulnerability; all he’d have to do is take more of a cue from his co-star Jacobs, who has sincerity in spades.
The book by David Simpatico, adapted from Peter Barsocchini’s screenplay, tries to add extra wit but often falls fairly flat, although it does manage to deepen the characters of drama club prexy Sharpay (Chandra Lee Schwartz) and her tag-along twin, Ryan (Bobby List), who is allowed the boldest departure from the original, portrayed here as obviously gay and increasingly uncomfortable in his sister’s shadow.
And it takes pretty much the entire show before Lisa Stevens’ choreography finally emerges from musicvideo line-dancing into something noticeable.
But in that ultimate number, “We’re All in This Together,” everything indeed does come together, including the dancing. If the joyousness that emanates from the stage in the last 10 minutes is all the multitude of little kids in the audience remember about this show, that doesn’t bode badly for the development of future audiences.