No Child Left Behind

What can stop 'High School Musical': The Musical? Nothing.

The best thing about high school, as I remember it anyway, was that after all the health classes, early morning bus rides, and ineffectual insubordination, I still instinctually understood that there would come a time when it was all over (save for the sweaty nightmares about forgetting my schedule, losing my locker, and taking final exams for which I hadn't studied in the slightest; apparently those are never going away).

And yet Disney's High School Musical—originally a fairly modest cable movie—has become a phenomenon, moving DVDs by the truckload, as though they were a cure for adolescence itself. Children's Theatre Company landed the rights to produce this world premiere adaptation for the stage, and for their trouble they have already sold out the entire run. I happened to call CTC the day that tickets went on sale, and their entire phone system had crashed from the weight of parents desperately trying not to miss the trendiest teen-'tween event of the year.

The plot is endearingly basic and relatively angst-free. Basketball hero Troy (Benjamin R. Bakken) meets math whiz Gabriella (Katie Allen) on vacation; the two fall in love over karaoke, then part ways. Upon returning to East High, Troy learns that Gabriella has transferred to his school. The stage is set for teenage love... but, alas, he's a jock, she's a brain. It can't work. The friction created will open up a black hole and destroy the universe. Or something. Hey, even the stoners agree (here they're called skaters).

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That would seem to be that, until auditions are announced for a "neo-feminist" Juliet and Romeo, the annual school musical. Our young couple burns to take the stage together and transcend the clique gulf, but this naturally inflames the judgments of their peers, who set about to wreck their union and restore the proper social order. Troy and Gabriella's main rivals, twins Sharpay (Laura Otremba) and Ryan (Brian Skellenger), try to throw a spanner in the works but it would be easier to break up Romeo and Juliet.

I have no idea whether the post-Bratz set will look to the stage for sartorial guidance, but Rich Hamson's approximations of teenware are bright and parent-friendly. Truly, this show comes on like a breeze of positivity. Teens (and even 'tweens), it has been said, have an affection for brooding, and so it's hard to explain why this story steamrolls them so completely. One factor in this production might be the way director Peter Rothstein delivers wave after wave of big, big numbers: There are often more than 30 performers gyrating in moves that would leave their elders in traction, and the processed pop keeps on pumping. And the platitudes and half-baked truths (we're all the same beneath our differences, it seems) ring with such sincerity and purpose that they soothe the most benevolent districts of the teenage mind.

Even Sharpay is more silly than evil (on the DVD she's more diabolical, sort of witchy and diseased), and Skellenger has wry fun as her cheerfully swishy brother. True, midway through we're treated to an epic number called "Stick to the Status Quo," which dresses down various free spirits for their lowdown deviance (one young man likes to bake! one of the stoners plays the cello!). But it rocks like all heck and so effectively subverts teenage social conformity that one's crusty old heart fairly breaks for young people discovering that it's okay to be a freak.

The music has been crafted by a long list of brutally efficient, deadeye songwriters; one imagines ruthless mercenaries who can move vast inventories of pickup trucks on the basis of a single chord change (wait, that's John Mellencamp). But there's no sense quibbling, or even wading into the old debate about whether Disney has expanded the national imagination or locked it in amber. People will love this show because it is loud, insanely youthful, cheerfully sexless (you could easily take a seven-year-old, say, without being tarred as inappropriate), and relentlessly upbeat. It also has a heart down there, buried in a cask, deep beneath a Yucca Mountain's worth of high-gloss musical theater product. If anyone knows of an East High in real life, I'd be willing to have another crack at a diploma.

 
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