Carly Mercedes Dyer
High School Musical is a global phenomenon, a Disney-backed musical juggernaut that has now rammed its way into the West End (or, at least, the Hammersmith Apollo) much to the delight of London teens, tweens and their bemused parents.
This stage production of Disney’s most successful made-for-TV movie won’t disappoint its (many) fans. Like the film, the two-hour stage show is a mix of toothache-sweet teen romance, moral lessons and a good old sing song. If you’re a fan of Grease or have ever settled down to watch an episode of or The X-Factor you may well love this; and if you’re aged between five and fifteen, it’s the stuff of dreams.
However if musicals are not your cup of tea and you don’t have kids in tow, you would be advised to save the, not insubstantial, cost of a ticket for something that won’t require ear protection against an army of hysterical children cheering and waving at a group of hoofing adults dressed as teenagers.
I arrived at the venue only to be transported back to a school sports day. I was surrounded by a swarm of small girls and boys dressed in East High Wildcat basketball and cheerleading outfits. But while kids made up the bulk of the audience, I did spot, along with mums and dads, a good smattering of over 18s looking sheepishly at their feet.
Like the most famous High School musical of them all, Grease, the production begins with a chance meeting between an unlikely couple. Gabriella Montez is the maths freak and Troy Bolton is the basketball guy. They don’t meet on the beach like Danny and Sandy; instead couple duet in a karaoke competition at a ski resort. In the world of HSM, everyone can sing like Leona Lewis.
Troy (Mark Evans) and Gabriella (Claire-Marie Hall) don’t meet again until they are unexpectedly brought together on the first day of school at East High, Albuquerque, New Mexico. What follows is a story about young romance and friendship, with Disney telling us that it’s OK to live your dreams, break free from the status quo and snog the basketball jock (even if you are quite good at math). The guy gets the girl, the song and the basketball cup, despite the plotting of the catty head of the drama club, Sharpay, who will stop at nothing to get the star part in the school musical.
The eight leads put in their best cheesy performances. Despite lacking the perma-tan and the all American wholesome appeal of Zac Effron, Evans is cute as Troy Bolton and Hall’s Gabriella stands out for her outstanding voice. Nadine Higgin as Taylor McKessie makes a particularly sassy West End debut. One of the strongest characters, drama teacher, Ms Darbus is brought to life by ex-Eastender Letitia Dean; we reveled in her camp hamminess and she stole the show on a number of occasions.
Transferring from the small screen to the stage is a challenge, but thanks to slick choreography and a great set it works. Kenneth Foy’s sets, schoolrooms, gym and canteen, evoke the film brilliantly and although not MTV-slick in places, the funky choreography by Lisa Stevens also looks the part.
With a double platinum soundtrack it’s no surprise that the audience is brought to its feet several times with hits like Start of Something New, Breaking Free and We’re All in This Together. As in the film, the music alternates quite formulaicly between slow and upbeat songs, building the excitement level gradually to fever pitch. By time the full cast medley brings the story to a close, most of the young audience were waving their pom-poms and screaming at the top of their lungs.
Despite the current financial climate, there was no sign that the up-to-65 a head tickets were putting off families from buying into one of Disney’s biggest success stories. In this age of recession doom and gloom, everyone needs a bit of musical escapism and this Wildcat won’t be hanging up her pom-poms for a while yet.