The stage adaptation of Disney’s smash-hit High School Musical had its London premiere on Saturday evening (5 July 2008, previews from 28 June) at the Hammersmith Apollo, in front of an eclectic audience of stars and their kids (See Today’s 1st Night Photos).
Since its US premiere in January 2006, the made-for-TV Disney movie High School Musical has gone on to become a global phenomenon. Winner of two Emmy Awards, the soundtrack has been certified Double Platinum in the UK alone, while DVD sales have topped 1.6 million. The screen sequel, High School Musical 2, broke TV viewing records in both the US and UK.
The stage adaptation tells how Troy Bolton, a popular basketball star, and Gabriella Montez, a shy, academically gifted newcomer, discover they share a secret passion for singing. When they sign up together to audition for the leads in the school musical, it threatens East High\'s rigid social order and sends their peers into uproar.
High School Musical features a book by David Simpatico (adapted from the original film script by Peter Barsocchini) and a score which includes all the songs from the original chart-topping soundtrack, including the UK hit singles “Breaking Free” and “We’re All in This Together”. It’s directed by Jeff Calhoun and stars Letitia Dean, who makes her musical debut as drama teacher Ms Darbus, alongside Mark Evans and Claire-Marie Hall as would-be sweethearts Troy and Gabriella (See News, 15 Apr 2008).
Initial critical opinion was generally divided between those in the “resistance is futile” camp, and those who felt the show is best summed up as “pile it high and flog it cheap”. Of the performances, most acknowledged Letitia Dean’s “good comic value” as Ms Darbus, whilst Evans and Hall managed to remain “sweet without becoming cloying” as Troy and Gabriella. Less eulogistic were comments about the “lousy” production values – one critic simply describing the sets as an “eyesore” - and director Jeff Calhoun’s “plodding staging”. However, despite any reservations, all were unanimous in their assessment of the show\'s impact on the generally youthful audience – “like a Beatles gig but for eight-year-olds”.
Roger Foss on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “For tweenage kicks, there’s nothing quite like High School Musical. From the get-go, it’s one relentless sugar rush, making Disney’s other UK stage outings, Mary Poppins and The Lion King, seem tamer than the Teletubbies. And when even sweet little five-year-olds dressed as East High cheerleaders start to baby boogie in the aisles, grown ups – like it or not – simply have to sit back, buy an ‘I love Troy’ t-shirt and forgive and forget the tawdriness of the sets, the over-amplified vocals and corn-fed lines that sometimes sound like Disney-fied blanditudes. The cast deservedly earn their high-decibel curtain call cheers, especially Claire-Marie Hall growing in confidence as love-struck but academically gifted Gabriella; Mark Evans as boy-next-door Troy discovering his best friend in Gabriella while learning to relate to his over-strict dad … and Letitia Dean gloriously camping it up while handing out detentions as no-nonsense Ms Darbus ... High School Musical achieves high marks simply because it’s cool, cool, cool.”
Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (one star) – “To enter the world of Disney\'s High School Musical is to enter a parallel universe … It\'s like spending an eternity being jumped all over by an enthusiastic but incontinent puppy whose persistent yap says: ‘Love me! Love me!’ … Its target audience is six to ten-year-olds, but it\'s the mums and dads who are buying into this fairy tale that is so sweet and chaste it makes Grease look X-rated … Julie Taymor\'s stage version of The Lion King took the movie and gloriously reinvented it; High School Musical merely tries to cash in on demand. In effect it is a piece of live merchandising. It\'s a product, not a production, and one which has a ‘pile it high and flog it cheap’ mentality. The design is tawdry, the choreography dull, and the innocuous ballads become a triumphant showcase of songs designed for people who don\'t like music, but love the noise it makes ... It\'s not about art, but about artfully parting you from your cash.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “ Despite my strenuous efforts to remain curmudgeonly, resistance was futile. There is something genuinely uplifting about so many children having so much fun, and though you might legitimately complain that the show\'s narrative is sometimes cheesy, and its songs a touch bland, they both do the job … David Simpatico\'s stage script is sharper and funnier than the film\'s … Lisa Stevens\' choreography proves a turbo-charged delight, while Jeff Calhoun\'s staging maintains a hurtling momentum and a sharp eye for comic detail. Rebecca Faulkenberry is hilariously snide as Sharpay, Letitia Dean offers good comic value as the flaky drama teacher while Mark Evans and Claire-Marie Hall manage to be sweet without becoming cloying as Troy and Gabriella … As The Who once observed, the kids are all right.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Anybody hoping to enjoy this stage version of Disney’s film should come wearing a cheerleader’s top, trailing a child aged eight or nine and, above all, harbouring a deep interest in American high school culture … With another production of the musical roaming the British regions, an ice-show version promised and a CD of the songs contributed by (yes, really) 13 moderately gifted tune-smiths selling millions, High School Musical is a phenomenon, a cult and, indeed, a phenomenal cult. My hating it is no reason why you and yours shouldn’t love it … The show’s existential message is that you must discover and accept your true self and ‘cannot let people stop you doing what you want to do because you are what you do’ … Even Dad, hitherto the sort of all-American loony who sees games and sons in the way that Patton saw war and GIs, ends by endorsing that view, giving us a consensus embracing everyone: prancing geeks, leaping jocks and audience members waving their pom-poms; all but me.”
Kate Bassett in the Independent – “This is like a Beatles gig but for eight-year-olds. The hysterical screaming starts even before the curtain rises on Disney\'s High School Musical at the 3,500-seat Apollo. Be warned: if this over-amplified show doesn\'t hurt your eardrums, its easily pleased fans may do, for the little darlings are legion and extremely high-pitched … The volume is racked up for the pappy catchy numbers. Claire-Marie Hall\'s Gabriella and especially Mark Evans\' Troy sing with gusto, yet without the smitten youthful charm of the original stars. Some of the dancing is athletically natty … But director Jeff Calhoun fails to bring individual characters into focus on a crowded stage … I\'m sure most of the children in the audience enjoyed themselves and it is undeniably sweet seeing them (some as young as four) singing along and waving their arms in unison. Nonetheless, the slipping of corporate brand names into the script – like surreptitious ads – is disgraceful.”
Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “There can\'t have been shrieking like it since the height of Beatlemania. At the very least, you\'d imagine the Pope and Nelson Mandela had joined forces with Girls Aloud … It\'s Grease without the sex and subtext, a charmingly chaste delight, and it\'s here for the summer in all its perky, peppy and every other energy-packed adjective glory. Adult eardrums will die slow, painful deaths. I must confess that I enjoyed the film more, but that might be because I actually heard it. Here, the yelling starts the moment the action does … A production this size on a stage this big was always going to struggle to match the film\'s moments of real - if you\'re nine - pathos, so director Jeff Calhoun wisely opts for unremitting bounce. The off-the-octane scale choreography involves much flinging about of highlighted tresses and the scenes … pass by in a blur … The finale … is so rousing that if it were hooked up to the National Grid we\'d never need fossil fuels again. As thrilling and empty a theatrical sugar rush as the biggest bumper bag of sweeties ever.”
- by Theo Bosanquet