Arielle Jacobs, John Jeffrey Martin, and company
in Disney's High School Musical
(© Joan Marcus)
Arielle Jacobs, John Jeffrey Martin, and company
in Disney's High School Musical
(© Joan Marcus)
In the relentlessly and abundantly energetic Disney's High School Musical, which has landed at Chicago's LaSalle Bank Theatre as part of its national tour, tall, cute Troy (John Jeffrey Martin) meets way-sweet, long-haired Gabriella (Arielle Jacobs) on a winter vacation and shows her his tender side. That's something no one back at East High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico has seen.

Then, Gabriella's family moves to Albuquerque and they reconnect. But he's the basketball team's star playmaker and she's a brainiac who wins science fairs, so their cliques don't mesh -- not until all differences are set aside when they both audition for the high school musical. Eventually, their friends -- and even Troy's basketball coach (who's also his dad) -- come around for a happy ending.

Okay, so this boy-meets-girl story, which has enchanted zillions of viewers on The Disney Channel in the past 18 months, is as predictable as it is thin, and the songs are far from memorable. But one couldn't ask for a better production than this one. Kids will love it -- and their parents might too. The show has no swear words, no violence, and no sex; Troy and Gabriella never share so much as a kiss until the closing moments. All this makes High School Musical the perfect family-friendly show. It will appeal especially to girls 8-14, who can't get enough of looking at cute boys, which the cast has in abundance. (Cute girls are abundant, too.)

Without question, High School Musical is something different for a Disney show; it's about real people in urban America, not about Africa or animals or mermaids. On the other hand, it offers none of the elaborate production magic apparent in other Disney shows -- no dancing candelabras or giant puppets. In fact, the show is resolutely old-fashioned in form, even if it's contemporary in its look and sound.

Unlike other Disney musicals, the show is performed on a standard wagon-and-drop set requiring no special stage mechanics. Because it's set entirely within a contemporary high school, the scenic design by Kenneth Foy consists of rows of lockers, desks, cafeteria tables, and institutional lighting fixtures -- all given splashy colors and bathed by Ken Billington in loads of bright, hot light.

The 12 songs -- which are almost exclusively up-tempo, except for two rather nice love ballads -- are written by 13 writers, and draw on contemporary mainstream rock styles while eschewing heavy metal, rap, and hip-hop. You won't leave the theater humming the songs, although your kids might if they've been listening to the soundtrack CD for the last year-and-a-half.

The numbers are sold by an exceptionally gifted cast, all of whom boast fluid and big voices, lithe and flexible bodies, and energy to burn (and they certainly burn it). As Troy and Gabriella, Martin and Jacobs are the best of the best and cutely sexy without being sexual. They easily command their scenes.

Director Jeff Calhoun and choreographer Lisa Stevens create the loose, ramshackle energy of adolescent moves and grooves rather than the identifiable patterns of typical production numbers. Musical theater insiders may catch a passing reference to Bob Fosse, although the athletic choreography is overwhelmingly inspired by club dancing and basketball.

I do have two not-so-small quibbles: Out of 32 characters, only five are African-American, one is Asian-American, and none are identifiably Latino or Native American, which seems odd for a public high school in New Mexico. And why must the chief drama clique boy, Ryan Evans (played by the exceptionally limber Bobby List) be so gay? The issue isn't that he's gay, but that he's the only one. When everyone is paired off in the show's finale, guess who gets left out?

On the whole, however, High School Musical is greater than the sum of its parts -- because every part and particle serves the show in an exceptionally tight collective effort.