When your usual beat consists of Wagner operas, Shaw & Shakespeare as well as many first attempts by fledgling filmmakers, spending a night with the Disney machine is as enlightening as it was, er mostly, entertaining.
Based on Peter Barsocchini’s Disney Channel Movie of the same name, this production is largely borrowed from such teen shows as Saved by the Bell (brilliantly blonde Bobby List as Ryan seems to have time-warped off the hit-series set, but does that cast one better by dancing up a storm) and Family Matters (Leonard E. Sullivan, one of the “Brainiacs,” is a deadringer in look and costume for Steve Urkel).
All of the action takes place in East High School, Albuquerque New Mexico. Returning after the Christmas break, Troy (John Jeffrey Martin has the flair and physique if not the consistency in his voice to nail the part) reunites with new-to-the-school girl, Gabriella (Arielle Jacobs soars and should have a go at Maria in West Side Story). Her unexpected appearance upends Ryan’s twin, Sharpay’s sense of entitlement to the school’s basketball captain (Chandra Lee Schwartz has the young audience cheering as her plans are thwarted at every turn). The rivalry is further intensified when both the twins and Troy/Gabriella burst into song, ending up getting callbacks for the new, student-written production of Juliet & Romeo. Olivia Oguma’s portrayal of a budding songsmith is charming.
Contributing to the “black-story” are Taylor (Shaullanda Lacombe—savvy and smart delivery) and Chad (Shakiem Evans—has difficulty convincing he’s as dumb as the script would like). The former pushes Gabriella into an equation-solving contest, the latter is Troy’s teammate and best friend.
Representing the adults are Troy’s father and coach (Ron Bohmer) and drama class (a.k.a. get-in-touch-with-yourself-during-detention advocate), Ms. Darbus (convincingly done by Ellen Harvey).
But before you can say “plot points leave the trails of believability,” (not dissimilar to many operas), the final tryouts for the home-grown musical, the math contest and the final game of the basketball season are all schedulted for 3:00 p.m. on the same day! Intercom announcer Jack Scott (Michael Mahany) makes sure both students and audience are kept in the loop.
Up to this the point, the family crowd has had mixed reactions to the carefully packaged proceedings. The biggest laugh goes to the ensemble member’s uncanny imitation of a worm; the completely lost laugh was the Eugene O’Neill/Shaquille O’Neal gag; the cheapest laugh (also missed) comes from Gabriella’s cellphone chiming the first few notes of “The Love Theme” from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (cross-reference below). Such an obscure inside joke is tiresome, and only slows the pace.
The music is pleasant enough, with the couples’ duets (“What I’ve Been Looking For,” “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”) lingering longer than the fast-paced production numbers (“We’re All in This Together”) that are effectively delivered (basketballs dropping everywhere and circus-feel gymnastics move us metaphorically under the big top).
Kenneth Foy’s sets are marvels of efficiency as the lockers rock and roll across the stage—instantly shifting scenes from court to class to showerstalls.
But when all is sung and done, nobody fails, everybody wins, you can be anything: it’s OK for guys to bake or—heaven forbid—play the cello (note to audio control, be sure the sound-clip is the only string instrument that requires a peg) is just too sickly sweet (even Walt recognized the fact that sh*t happens) to captivate and inspire. But as the extra-happy ending unfolded with its own special fireworks, the cheering fans gave ample first-person evidence that it did entertain. JWR