Send in the clowns

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  July 12, 2007

It comes as less of a surprise that each of the singers can put across the zephyr-like bitterness and poignance of some of the songs. For my money, there’s too much West Side Story here (Sondheim was only the lyricist, for goodness sake), and Barrett’s voice, though aptly operatic, is too heavy for Maria. But she applies her ravishingly round-toned soprano to thrilling effect on Follies’ “I’m Losing My Mind.” And McNab is capable of affecting, vibrato-throbbing delicacy, as “I Remember” and “Anyone Can Whistle” attest. Of course, the talented trio have excellent material; I predict big things for this Sondheim guy post-1976.

If you’re in high school, you’re probably way too old for DISNEY HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, the jumping, G-rated stage incarnation of the 2006 Disney Channel Original Movie that became a pre-teen phenomenon, its soundtrack the best-selling album of that year. Set in some palace of lower learning whose matriculants wear rhinestone school clothes, the film is a cross between Beverly Hills 90210 and the squeaky-clean Mickey Mouse Club. Its female lead, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, even has the exotic look of a skinny Annette Funicello — though counterpart Zac Efron looks more like Partridge Family–vintage David Cassidy than Frankie Avalon. At North Shore Music Theatre, where the live show is in its area professional premiere (through July 29), East High — as projected on large, looming laptop screens above the round gym of a stage — at least looks more like a public school than it does the Trump Towers. And the energetic cast of 38 (including 12 locals) is mostly garbed in jeans when not decked out in basketball or cheerleader gear. But the show remains the most curiously retro variation on Romeo and Juliet by way of Grease imaginable: two hours of hopping, skipping, bubblegum-pop-driven drivel next to which The Little Mermaid seems like West Side Story.

One tends to think of Disney as an assembly line, and this show has been built on the chassis of Grease. And apart from the laptops and cell phones, it seems more a chaste product of the 1950s than the 1972 hit featuring ducktails and teen pregnancy. Like Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski, basketball star Troy Bolton and “brainiac” Gabriella Montez meet cute on vacation (winter at the ski lodge rather than summer at the beach), then find themselves at the same Albuquerque high school, to which Gabriella is a transfer. The plot chronicles their karaoke-fueled struggle to break free of their respective cliques and audition for the high-school musical. Troy must contend with his unsupportive jock posse and pressuring coach dad, Gabriella with the fellow eggheads who want to conscript her for the Scholastic Decathlon. And all, including the audience, must contend with Sharpay and Ryan, twin thespians from Hell, who would probably go the Columbine route rather than see the leads played by anyone other than their Vegasized selves. Eventually seeds of cooperation are sown, and the musical mantra that “We’re All in This Together” is absorbed by smiling, boogying teens of every hue. Any resemblance to a 21st-century high-school experience is strictly coincidental.

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