Kids currently in high school grew up with the “High School Musical” movie franchise, and, in a sense, so did their parents. It’s hard to imagine the years following the original Disney Channel movie’s release in 2006 without those catchy tunes and formidable dance moves by Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale.
Fort Atkinson High School will present its own production of “High School Musical” this weekend, starring sophomore Logan Recob as “big man on campus” Troy Bolton alongside junior Gwen Hirtz as his star-crossed love interest, the brainy bookworm Gabriella Montez.
Trudianne Thom is artistic director and Craig Engstrom is musical director.
The way the story goes, Troy and Gabriella meet at a ski resort while vacationing with their families, and wind up getting randomly persuaded to sing a karaoke duet together at the resort where they’re staying. There’s chemistry between them, but they believe they’ll never see each other again. Little do they know that Gabriella’s family just moved and she will be attending the same high school as Troy when school begins for the next term.
From there, the plot gets as complicated as high school in real life as Troy and Gabriella face pressure from their respective peer groups to “Stick With the Status Quo” and not cross the imaginary boundaries set by various social cliques. The tension lies in that, by then, both Troy and Gabriella had discovered during their duet that they both love to sing. And so, they begin to toy with the idea of signing up for the school’s upcoming musical production, “Juliet and Romeo.”
Meanwhile, in comes Sharpay Evans, the school’s theatre diva, played by sophomore Abbey Hoffman, and her brother Ryan Evans, a diva in his own right, played by Ryan Rector. Much of the story’s conflict centers on Sharpay’s belief that no one can touch the Evans duo’s claim to the lead roles in every East High School production, and she will not give up easily.
It doesn’t help that Sharpay harbors an intense crush on Troy and would like nothing more than to play opposite him in “Juliet and Romeo,” written with heart and soul by their talented yet demure classmate, Kelsi Neilson, convincingly played by senior Alivia Baker in her very first theatre performance.
Anyone who’s familiar with the movie version of “High School Musical” will be pleased to recognize some of their favorite numbers reprised on stage. The two versions are very slightly different, however, and some new elements have been added, such as the introduction of narrator/school radio announcer Jack Scott, the “velvet fog of East High,” played by sophomore Matthew Sell. This addition helps move the story along and clarify some of the nuances for those who have not watched the movie 20 times since 2006.
There are some new songs added, such as “Cellular Fusion” and “Counting on You,” but for the most part the songs are consistent with the movie production. This is great news for anyone who thought the stage production might forego the choreographic highlight involving synchronized bouncing of basketballs in “Get’cha Head in the Game,” due to the potential risk of a radically errant ball hitting an audience member.
In the tech rehearsal we watched, all went smoothly, there were no injuries, and it was an impressive display of hand-eye coordination, stage presence and sheer guts from the young men playing the Wildcats basketball team.
Other favorites such as “Start of Something New,” “What I’ve Been Looking For,” “Breaking Free” and, of course, “We’re All in This Together” are featured just as prominently on stage as they are in the movie.
New to this production, according to Artistic Director Trudianne Thom, are projected images to augment the scenery. Unfortunately, the new technology was not functioning for the production we saw, but it promises to add a layer of professional quality to the otherwise uncomplicated set design.
As mentioned, the extreme popularity and resulting familiarity of the “High School Musical” movie make it somewhat difficult to avoid making comparisons between the professional performances of Efron, Hudgens and Evans with their Fort Atkinson High School counterparts, but the local performers have brought their A game and do not disappoint on any level.
The most pressure no doubt is upon Logan Recob. The role of Troy Bolton requires a serious degree of dancing (and athletic!) ability, but also the tender, soulful quality of a young man with dreams of singing, despite disapproval from his friends, and even his father, who also is the basketball coach, played here by none other than high school English teacher Mike Hall.
Recob delivers, bringing solid vocal ability and a gentle stage presence that really came into its own as the rehearsal went on. He particularly was strong in “When There Was Me and You,” a melancholy duet for Troy and Gabriella as they navigate their romantic and social struggles.
For her part, Gwen Hirtz pulls out all the stops, showcasing her very impressive vocal range and clarity. While her role is more of the “straight man” in this stage version of the story — she’s the reasonable “brainiac” girl, after all — she manages to bring out a bit of that endearing self-consciousness that we all remember Gabriella for in the movie. Like Recob’s, Hirtz’s voice just got stronger and stronger as the show went on, really tugging at the heartstrings in “When There Was Me and You.”
The role of Sharpay Evans arguably could be the most fun to play in this show. All drama and sass, Sharpay is a cartoon version of a type that already is a cartoon character. The stereotypical theatre diva is represented in “High School Musical” by Sharpay as the privileged, well-dressed female twin to Ryan, her flamboyant yet slightly less self-centered brother.
Abbey Hoffman is a feast for the eyes in this production, showing off a strong stage presence as well as well-developed singing and dancing chops. The stage show tamps down some of the more mean-spirited qualities of the movie version’s Sharpay, but her cut-throat, winning-is-everything vibe still comes through loud and clear.
Ryan Rector’s Ryan Evans, a treat to behold in his own right, displays self-assurance and vulnerability at once as a young man who’s inextricably part of his high school’s social machine, but has the depth of character to know the right thing to do. He is a perfect foil for his sister.
One of the highlight performances was from Hannah Robel as Ms. Darbus, East High School’s drama teacher. In the movie, Darbus delivers a good share of comic relief as an aging theatre diva herself. Tempered by life and experience, she delights in dressing down the popular kids when necessary and, in short, will take no grief from her students.
Robel oozed stage presence and comedic aplomb, flitting about the stage in her flowing and colorful outfits complete with hats and other overstated accessories. The scenes joining Robel and Hall as Coach Bolton were a pleasure to watch as the two convincingly and hilariously played overbearing adults with opposing agendas.
Also owning the stage during their scenes were Donald Martin, playing fellow jock and best friend to Troy, Chad Danforth, and Amelia Zanin as Taylor McKessie, Gabriella’s friend among the “Brainiac” crew. Both of these kids appeared to be completely comfortable on stage and, as a result, their singing and dancing made their characters both believable and fun to watch. We’re certain to see more of both of these actors.
Matthew Sell brought the school radio announcer Jack Scott to life with his well-developed and melodic voice, and enthusiastic and emotive mannerisms. He easily could have been channeling Vince Fontaine from another favorite high school musical, “Grease.”
Freshman Jack McDonough and junior Elly Scheuerell both had supporting roles as James, of the theatre crowd, and a cheerleader, respectively, but they got a lot of attention nonetheless due to pure enthusiasm and confidence. Brian Chavez, who played one of the jocks, Zeke Baylor, was endearing and convincing as a budding culinary genius just realizing there’s life after high school basketball.
“High School Musical” is a don’t-miss celebration of the pains and pleasures of youth as it navigates the confusing and constantly changing waters of life in high school. The message is an important one for young people — and everyone else — that labels and social silos stifle growth and opportunity, and worse, can be damaging to self-esteem.
While there are no serious conflicts dealt with in this particular story, the take-home is that an open mind and heart can go a long way toward helping our friends and family realize their dreams.
This particular iteration of the nouveau-classic “High School Musical” is a real pleasure to watch and showcases a wealth of impressive young talent that we’re fortunate to be cultivating in our community.
Showtimes are at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 14, 15 and 16, in the Fort Atkinson High School auditorium, and again on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 2 p.m. All tickets tonight cost $8 per person; admission for all other showings is $12 for adults and $8 for students.