High School Musical Tours OC Performing Arts Center

Even before the giant curtain rose for the OCPAC debut of Disney’s High School Musical: On Tour, the packed house of mostly ‘tween attendees and their families giggled with glee in anticipation for this chance to see up close and personal the characters they’ve watched over and over on DVD.

If you are like some adults in the audience, you may not know what all the fuss was about. High School Musical started as an ordinary original movie on the Disney Channel in 2006 and has since grown to become a cultural phenomenon with over 250 million viewers, complete with a best-selling soundtrack that ranked #1 for the year, sequels, local theater productions and an up-coming ice skating version.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, it is basically a modern Grease without the sex or Romeo and Juliet without the death. It’s the story of a popular basketball star named Troy and an academically gifted newcomer named Gabriella who discover they both share a secret passion for singing. Troy and Gabriella wrestle not only with the growing pains of first love, but the social stigma of crossing the jock-nerd barrier and auditioning for their school’s musical.

Writer David Simpatico was hired to adapt the story for the stage, which was a smart decision since both art forms have different techniques. While basically remaining true to the scenes in the movie, he fleshed out the relatively thin storyline, added a goofy school PA announcer named Jack Scott to streamline the narrative, and inserted two original songs, the rumor-filled “Cellular Fusion” and peer pressured “Counting On You.”

This story works well on the stage, especially with its hyper-kinetic movement, from aerobic choreography to eye-popping stage lights to always-moving sets. It’s overflowing with Disney theatrical sweetness. The touring cast of 34 is led by Arielle Jacobs (with great emotion in her voice) as Gabriella and John Jeffrey Martin (who dances better than Zak Efron) as Troy. Playing a convincingly nasty Sharpay Evans is Helene Yorke, who also hits some fantastic high notes. A crowd pleaser was her queeny brother Ryan Evans played by Bobby List who has great comic timing, as does the quirky drama teacher Ms. Darbus played by Ellen Harvey. Though an experienced actor, Ron Bohmer seemed out of place in the role of Coach Bolton. The ensemble sings well, but it was too bad that the guitar-heavy orchestra drowned out some of the words.

As I watched the show, I thought how different these characters’ experiences were from my own. In their world, teens don’t drink, smoke, swear, make crude remarks, and never mention the topic of sex. This Disney vision of adolescence is devoid of reality, but it’s that idealized optimism for the way the world should be that parents and tweens are connecting to. In our pop culture where teen celebrities seem to be consistently in rehab, the characters of HSM are squeaky clean.

Plus, at an age where every kid feels pressure to conform, the message of HSM is to be yourself. It says you don’t have to change to be cool, but you are cool just the way you are, whether that’s as a brainiac, jock, theater-lover or anything else.

High School Musical: On Tour is playing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center June 17th-22nd, 2008. Shows are Tuesday-Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20-70. For more information call: 714-556-2122.

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