Two Views of High School Musical

Heléne Yorke as “Sharpay Evans” and Colorado native Bobby List as “Ryan Evans” in Disney’s High School Musical National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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America can't get enough of High School Musical -- and neither can we. A theatrical version of the ubiquitous Disney Channel flick (which has already spawned one movie sequel, with another on the way) is appearing at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House through July 27 (click here or phone 303-893-4100 for more details), and Westword's two event specialists, Amber Taufen and Susan Froyd, both attended the July 22 premiere. Both of their very different takes are below. Find out if they think it makes the grade.

All About the Music

"So, is this a musical about a high-school musical, or is it a musical about high school?" asked my plus-one as we were driving to the premiere of High School Musical.

"I have no idea," I told him, "but it's, like, the biggest thing ever. It's a Disney production. I think it was a television show? I'm not sure. All I know is, it's big."

I don't have kids, and I don't have cable TV -- I don't watch a lot of television, anyway -- so although I'd heard of High School Musical, I didn't really understand the buzz. I was interested to see what all the fuss was about. And as we arrived at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, I could see that I'd drastically underestimated the amount of brouhaha surrounding this production.

There was an entire booth inside selling not only High School Musical soundtracks, but also an array of clothing -- baby tees, basketball jerseys emblazoned with Troy Bolton's name and number. You get the idea. It was astounding. And the booth was just swarmed with munchkins and their parents.

Coming into the play with absolutely no idea what to expect, I found it to be a cleaned-up (as in squeaky-clean) version of the quintessential high-school musical, Grease. Popular boy meets brainy girl on vacation. Popular boy likes brainy girl and they share a song. Brainy girl unexpectedly moves to popular boy's school, where his friends don't know he has a secret soft spot for singing and brainiacs, and the school's social order refuses to just let them be who they are. Changes ensue. But in this version, Troy Bolton (popular boy) and Gabriella Montez (brainy girl) only hold hands, hug and gaze longingly into each other's eyes instead of, you know, making out.

When the characters of Sharpay and Ryan were first introduced, I immediately thought, "Oh, the drama queen and her gay best friend." Then I actually looked at my program and noticed they were supposed to be brother and sister. It's not that the actors did a terrible job of playing brother and sister (Colorado native Bobby List as Ryan Evans was my favorite character); it was that the Ryan character simply screamed camp, dahling. And I found it a little disturbing that Disney chose to make Ryan -- a satellite of his queen-bee sister, who adores her in a totally platonic manner -- Sharpay's brother instead of gay best friend. First, I thought it was improbable that a brother in this day and age would ever hero-worship his twin sister in that manner. And second, why on earth do Sharpay and Ryan try out together for the romantic leads in the play's high-school musical, Juliet and Romeo? What is Disney trying to say, here? Incest trumps being gay? What?

There were some funny scenes in the play that provoked a smile from me -- the drama teacher's detention hall was classic, although I thought both her character and Coach Bolton were overly stereotypical. In fact, that was true of the entire cast. Which is odd, because the point of High School Musical seems to be that you shouldn't conform to stereotypical standards.

At intermission, the concession stand was mobbed by ill-mannered mothers; at least two of them cut in front of me in line. Maybe they need to go back to school. And during the cutesy second half of the play, I found my amusement came mostly from the voices of children sitting near me. The girl next to me whispered to her mother that "I Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" was a song not in the original TV movie, and a little girl wondered why Ryan was telling his classmates that Sharpay was dropped on her head at birth. "Was she really dropped on her head?" she asked her attending adult. Then, "Oh, are they just trying to say she's dumb?" And the little boy who gathered up all the streamers from the very grand finale was just too precious for words.

The whole production is very slick; the set is amazing, the dance numbers entertaining, and every last cast member has a fantastic voice. But it was just a little too cutesy and unbelieveable for me. Sharpay is no Cha Cha DiGregorio -- although she nurtures a not-so-secret passion for Troy, she's so shrill and obnoxious that no male in his right mind would find her attractive. And the nonconformists refuse to conform in very conventional ways. But children (and parents of children) who are already into High School Musical will find it a pleasant way to pass the evening -- good luck keeping them away from that merchandise booth. -- Amber Taufen

Middle-Aged Musical

First off, my ten-year-old is not, like, all High School Musical and that. It was my idea to go see the touring Broadway show, currently running downtown at the Ellie. She’s more of a Grease/Hairspray/Wicked/Mamma Mia! sort of girl, but I thought she might change her mind if she saw HSM live. Shows how much I know. She watched with a grain of pre-teen salt, laughing when it was appropriate, clapping after all the big numbers and completely – blessedly – ignoring the t-shirt hawkers in the lobby.

For the record, I had a good time. It’s a slick, smart production with a spunky cast and a good message about learning to get along with people who are different from you, and even my ´tween-aged disbeliever had to admit that the sappy parts (pretty much any time that star-crossed lovers Troy and Gabriella are together on stage) weren’t all that sappy. Instead, they were happily tempered by the upbeat side-characters. This version’s Troy, I have to say, isn’t nearly as dreamy as Zac Efron, but he’s pleasantly earnest, and the musical is totally driven by a classic Disney plot, wherein the good-hearted Princess seeks happiness with her Prince Charming, is waylaid by an evil witch (drama queen Sharpay) and her slimy, funny sidekick (kooky closet-boy Ryan, Sharpay’s henpecked drama-geek twin), but is saved in the end by true love – for Gabriella, Troy and everyone! (Except for poor Ryan, who remains a solo item throughout, as it apparently wouldn’t be PG enough for Disney to hook him up with a manly jock from an opposing clique). Sweet.

My daughter's attitude aside, I wouldn’t hesitate to invite any normal kid to see High School Musical while it’s here. But for me, it’s a hump in life that I’ve already crossed. What I need to know now is this: When will Wicked be back? The ten-year-old tastemaker forced me to ask. -- Susan Froyd

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