Friday, July 18, 2008

It may be predictable, but ‘Disney’ is a lot of fun

Disney's High School Musical at Encore! Theater

Published in The News Tribune, July 18, 2008

Encore! Theater’s outdoor summer shows kicked off with the vastly popular “Disney’s High School Musical” at the large outdoor stage behind Impact Church International in Gig Harbor.

The Disney films (three and counting with a fourth due in the fall) and their stage-show spinoffs (two and counting) have been phenomenally successful. And no wonder, it strikes all the chords: romance, triumph over diversity, heroes who go against the status quo (but just a little), and all with upbeat music and dance.

Of course it is terribly clichéd, with the handsome sports hero who falls for the shy and brainy girl, the typical high school cliques, and the snobby rich girl everyone loves to hate. So what if it’s yet another sophomoric knockoff of “Romeo and Juliet”? It’s a whole lot of fun, and the kids in the cast do a terrific job.

One of the grand things about “High School Musical” is that it is precisely what the title implies: a high school musical. Except for the two adult actors in the role of teachers, all of the cast are students.

So the musical is quite naturally brimming with the incredible youthful energy that has made it so popular, although the night I saw it they were sometimes slow to tap into that energy. A couple of the early ensemble tunes lacked a certain zip, but by the second act they were rocking out with abandon.

The story line is pretty simple. Troy Bolton (Grant Troyer) is the star basketball player for the East High Wildcats. Gabriella is a shy math wiz who is new to the school (played on alternating performances by Brynne Geiszler and Samantha Lobberegt, with Geiszler the night I saw it). They had briefly met at a ski lodge over Christmas break, sang karaoke together at an event there and then lost track of each other. Gabriella transfers to East High, and they discover each other again. Reluctantly, they audition for the leads in a new musical written by fellow student Kelsi, called “Juliet and Romeo” – how clever! Kelsi is played on alternating evenings by Michelle DeShon and Maddie Larson. DeShon did an excellent job of portraying the shy and nerdy composer on the night I saw the show.

Kelsi recognizes that Troy and Gabriella are more suitable to the lead roles than are the brother and sister who have traditionally had the leads in all the school’s musicals, Ryan (Bryan Gula) and Sharpay (alternating between Faith Higgins and Megan McCormick, with McCormick the night I attended.) Sharpay plots to keep Troy and Gabriella out of the play. It’s no surprise that in the end the heroes get the leading roles and, of course, Troy scores the winning shot in the championship game. Even Sharpay turns out to have redeeming qualities in the end.

All of the principal actors are outstanding.

I first saw Grant Troyer in “The Secret Garden” when he was 12 and again in “Pinocchio” when he was 13. I thought he was one of the best child actors I had ever seen. Then he took on his first adolescent role in the terrific punk musical “Angry Housewives,” and now, at 15, he shines in his first leading role. He exudes confidence on stage, and he has a great voice. And by the way, he was moved up to the leading role after both of the two older actors originally cast as Troy had to drop out.

Geiszler plays Gabriella with restraint. Of all the actors on stage (there are 40 in all), Geiszler is the one who seems most natural. She simply is the shy girl who sings beautifully. Her duets with Troyer on romantic ballads are highlights of the show.

When Troyer was moved up to fill the leading role, Gula took over the role of Ryan, Sharpay’s sweet and comical twin brother. Gula is tall and thin, and he dances terrifically on long, rubbery legs. I don’t know what role he was slated for before he was switched to this one, but he seems to have been born to play this character.

The bad guy or girl is nearly always the juiciest role in any play, and this one is no exception. Sharpay gets all the best comic lines. Who else but a villain gets to say things like “I was named after a show dog” or “I’d rather suck mucous from a dog’s nostrils” or get to tell a drama teacher “I didn’t lie; I improvised.” McCormick portrays her as a beautifully vicious snob. Some of the more entertaining moments in the play are the audition duets with Sharpay and Ryan.

Another notable performance is turned in by Phillip Olson as Jack Scott, the wacky kid who does all the school announcements.

Sitting outside to watch a musical on a warm summer night is a treat. It’s like going on a big family picnic. But there are distractions such as wind in the microphones and sometimes airplanes flying over. But you just have to put up with these distractions and enjoy it for what it is. Be sure to bring lawn chairs or blankets and mosquito repellent. Snacks and drinks are sold, or you can bring your own.

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