WARSAW – On Jan. 20, 2006, the Walt Disney organization via the Disney Channel premiered an original movie musical about high school students titled (with obviously minimal creativity) “High School Musical.” I saw it that night. Wednesday evening, I saw it again. This time it was the live theatrical version on stage at theWagon Wheel Theatre. With luck, I shall avoid it for at least another four years. Not that the WW version was not up to that company’s usual standard of excellence. Far from it. I would say the cast which is, with few exceptions, certainly above high school age, did a remarkable job of recreating the teenage characters. Their voices are solid, their dancing is sharp and unflagging and their ability to deliver the frequently awkward dialogue with absolute conviction is to be applauded. I have no problem with the WW company (although on opening night the technical aspect was unusually iffy).
My problem is with the material, a problem obviously not shared by the very large number of pre-teens, teens, parents and grandparents who cheered the handsome basketball jock and his unlikely love, the newly-transferred math and science geek, yet also had rousing final applause for the drama-crazed siblings whose devious plots were foiled at the 11th hour by jocks and geeks working together. The storyline (and I use that word loosely) is reportedly based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” although the closest connection here to that immortal tragedy seems to be in the title of the East High School musical for which jock Troy Bolton (Jake Thomas Klinkhammer) and geek Gabriella Montez (Mary Joe Duggan) eventually audition —”Juliet and Romeo.” Actually, ‘HSM” (everybody knows its name) is more akin to another nickname — “Grease Lite.” And therein lies its saving grace. Unlike the incredibly popular 1972 Broadway musical (which played for eight years before heading out to countless tours, regional and school productions and eventual Broadway revivals), “HSM” is squeeky clean, dialogue and message-wise. Gabriella and Troy have only to follow the “Start of Something New” to realize “Then There Was You and Me” and conclude “We’re All In This Together” and true (or, at least, high school) love conquers all, with everyone still upright. The message of “Grease” is diametrically opposed (drink, smoke, have sex, blow off studies and join a gang), leaving the best thing about that earlier show its score.
Unfortunately, the score of “HSM” (which credits 11 different composers) is pretty much forgettable, even though sung and played very well throughout. This show deserves all its applause because of the excellent cast. Klinkhammer is Efron-with-muscles. Duggan is sweet and sassy without being soppy. Rachel MacIsaacs’ Sharpay andDavid Glenwright’s brother Ryan are deliciously devious and dance up a storm. Adrianna Parson as math club prez Taylor is perfectly mis-matched with Troy’s second-in-command Zachary McConnell as Chad and Brandon Springman is hilarious as Zeke, a sharp shooter with a hidden talent. Must admit, the”Auditions” number is one I could see again. It looked so familiar! “Senior”roles go to Andy Robinson as Coach Bolton and Jennifer Shepherd as drama teacher Ms. Darbus, whose primary assignment is to keep the sports vs. arts friction going. When you go — and if you have a youngster or are out of the loop because you’ve never seen it, you will go — pay special attention to the young ensemble members who are members of the WW Stars of Tomorrow ensemble. They really are in high school.
Director/choreographer Scott Michael keeps every ball in the air from minute one (with unavoidable slow-downs for those pesky ballads), and the fast-paced dances will leave you gasping for breath. As noted, Thomas N. Stirling’s six member orchestra is excellent and Stephen Hollenbeck costumes the Wildcat rooters in appropriately brilliant hues. “High School Musical” plays through July 11 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. Performances at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For information and reservations, call 267-8041,