Aspiring young performers can get their theatrical feet wet in any number of locally produced Broadway musicals. Many of these are so-called “junior” versions of established hits— shows that have been reduced in length or scrubbed of objectionable language or adult situations.
But then there is Walt Disney’s “High School Musical,” a television musical specifically written to feature teenagers. The theatrical version, titled “High School Musical On Stage!,” opened at Conejo Players Theatre in Thousand Oaks on April 6, and from the looks of it, the young performers are having the time of their lives performing in a show written just for them.
When “High School Musical” debuted on the Disney Channel in 2006, it was a massive hit but adult reviewers couldn’t understand its appeal to teens. One critic dismissed it as a “schmaltzy little piece of obvious fluff populated by cardboard characters who spit out simplistic platitudes and breathy pop tunes.” But there’s no arguing with success, and the ensuing stage version of “High School Musical” went on to become hugely popular in schools without ever having appeared on Broadway.
Bennie Glasner serves triple duty as director, music director and set designer for Conejo Players’ production, with Whitney Grubb providing the energetic choreography.
The show stars Agoura High School senior Griffen Hamilton, who is used to holding the stage in leading roles. He plays Troy Bolton, the most popular student at East High School and captain of the varsity basketball team. But Troy is not interested as much in basketball as he is in auditioning for “Juliet and Romeo,” the school musical, directed by the school’s officious (and clueless) drama teacher, Mrs. Darbus (played with stuffy authority by Nora Kulkarni).
Also trying out is new girl Gabriella Montez (Saylor Bell), a recent transfer student who excels in math and science. Troy and Gabriella like each other, but threaten to alienate their respective school cliques (Troy’s “Jocks” and Gabriella’s “Brainiacs”) by abandoning their perceived roles and being themselves.
The rest is fairly predictable stuff, a sanitized “Grease” where everyone is nerdy and nice and schmaltzy and dances up a storm. Everyone that is except for Sharpay (Jessica Smith), the school’s “mean girl.” She’s a privileged rich girl who doesn’t want to relinquish her role as queen of the theater department and who conspires with her brother Ryan (Abhay Yoganathan) to thwart Troy and Gabriella’s attempts to usurp her position.
Hamilton and Bell work well together, and are duly supported by the other lead characters: Chad (Neirin Winter), Troy’s best friend on the basketball team; Zeke (Christian Nelson), who likes to prepare crème brûlée for anyone who is interested; Kelsi (Paige Nelson), composer of the school’s winter musical; and Jack (Ryan Hill), news announcer and the self-professed “velvet fog of East High.”
The show’s many production numbers include the impressive “Stick to the Status Quo” and “Get’cha Head in the Game,” the latter featuring a choreographed basketball drill. The rest are all peppy, effervescent numbers with optimistic, team-oriented titles like “We’re All in This Together” and “Counting on You” that keep the energy flowing.
Despite its paucity of drama and abundance of trite dialog, “High School Musical” did help ignite the show-choir craze of the last decade and the success of the TV series “Glee.” It features spirited dancing and infectious songs, written by a regiment of no less than 13 songwriters. “High School Musical” will never be confused with Sondheim, but if it gets young actors’ feet in the stage door, it’s doing its job.
The show runs through April 14 in Thousand Oaks. For tickets, visit conejoplayers.org or call (805) 495-3715.P