Not much in the way of gritty reality in this sugary-sweet musical from the Disney stable. Despite its high school setting, 'High School Musical' has so many nice people in it, even the single nasty blonde bitch is about as nasty as Toto from the Wizard of Oz. And not a single punch up here, nor even a quick drag on an illicit cigarette. Times have changed since I was at school!
Based on a low budget Disney film that's become a record-breaking phenomenon (and which, mercifully, I've never seen) this stage version is a cash cow, capitalising on the movie's success and raking-in the readies. Not that that seemed to matter to the hoards who were donning their cheerleader costumes, and pigging-out on confectionary. Most of the audience seemed to know all the characters already, presumably from having bought the DVD or seen the film on TV. And that poses the question: so why see the stage version?
The show seems targeted at a very young age-group. If my reckoning is anything to go by, many members of the audience were not just pre-teens, but almost pre-teeth! That didn't stop them revelling in the show, while attempting to guzzle zillions of buckets of popcorn – a considerable amount of which fell out of little paws and was left strewn about the floor of the cavernous Apollo at the end.
The plot is about as thin as an average coat of paint - undercoat at that. But again, given the target audience, that's probably appropriate too - not much chance of anyone getting left behind after they've fumbled to find their sweets in the dark, or had to exit for a toilet break. Basically it's a boy meets girl story. Troy and Gabriella meet at a karaoke session in the hols and, when school restarts, they find their blossoming relationship is put to the test as they're members of very different cliques within the school. But this being Disney, there's no possibility of everything not ending up happily ever after.
Surprisingly, there are no visual effects or technical tricks – well, apart from some streamers that get flung over the audience near the end. But there's not a hint of magic, or anyone being turned into a frog – though several likely candidates surrounded me. I thought that was all part of the Disney touch, but it seems not here. On every other count, though, this is Disney as you might expect. Professionalism screams out at you from the stage, because everyone is so meticulously well-drilled. The dancing is energetic if a little on the repetitive side. And the cast copes admirably with the hoards of littlies who want to clap at the merest hint of a song, but often can't quite get into the rhythm. Still, they're not musicians, yet!
The songs are uninspiring and generally forgettable. Most of the kids in the audience preferred the ballads, which seemed odd to me, though maybe it's indicative of a society overdosing on sentimentality. And when the hero and heroine actually, finally kissed, the kids erupted into a cheer that almost blew the roof off. Who says romance is dead?
'High School Musical' is sanitised, and too nice to be true. It's almost a fantasy, rather than any semblance of reality. But Disney certainly have a knack of knowing what pulls in audiences. Or, to put it another way, what brings in the cash. And on this occasion the theatre was packed to the rafters. Though it didn't seem to worry any of the others in the crowd, I felt rather short-changed on their behalf. There's not much in the way of inventiveness in this show, and it seemed like everything was almost on auto pilot. No risks, no experimentation, nothing very original. But, to be fair, 'High School Musical' is no worse than other musicals I've seen in this genre. And in some ways it's better – particularly as it's so slick. If you're looking for something new and different, this is definitely not it. But if you just can't get enough of the film – or the kids can't – this is a treat they'll love.
What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA Mountford for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A charmingly chaste delight." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Zero originality." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Cheerful, squeaky-clean entertainment...The design is tawdry, the choreography dull...It's not about art, but about artfully parting you from your cash." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, 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." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "hyper-energetic production is a terrific success."