Zac Efron as Troy in High School Musical
(Photo © The Disney Channel)
Zac Efron as Troy in High School Musical
(Photo © The Disney Channel)
The Disney Channel's High School Musical airs this weekend, and you should catch it even though it's flawed. In this TV movie, it's New Year's Eve at a Colorado ski lodge. Cute Troy Bolton and cute Gabriella Montez meet at a teen party, where they're dragged onto a karaoke stage and forced to sing. They connect musically as the clock strikes midnight, but Troy doesn't dare kiss her. A week later, at East High in Albuquerque, newcomer Gabriella is surprised to see Troy. He's equally astonished but more embarrassed, because here he's known as the Wildcats basketball team's crackerjack player -- his father is the team's coach! -- and he doesn't want anyone to know that he sang. (The situation recalls the scene in Grease when super-cool Danny Zuko encounters Sandy Dumbrowski after a summer fling).

Best friend Chad wouldn't understand; he only cares about the upcoming championship game. (Taylor, a girl who's chemistry club president, sneers: "Behold all the zoo animals.") But Sharpay Evans is interested in both Troy and singing. As she boasts to Gabriella, "My brother and I star in all the school productions, and we really welcome newcomers." Her brother Ryan says, "There are lot of supporting roles." We immediately hate them, as we're supposed to -- even before we see that Sharpay has placed a star on her locker.

The Evanses have drama club coach Ms. Darbus firmly in their corner. She's played by Alyson Reed, who played Marilyn Monroe on Broadway and Cassie in the Chorus Line film. Alas, Ms. D. is quite pretentious; she things like "The theater is a temple of art, a precious cornucopia of creative energy." (The movie's wan script is by Peter Barsocchini. No credit is given for the songs, and that makes sense when you hear them.)

Still, Troy wants to audition. Chad's response: "D'you think LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal auditioned for their school musicals? The music in those shows isn't hip-hop or rock or anything essential to culture. Show music, costumes, and make-up? Frightening!" Yet we see the entire Wildcat team singing and dancing to a benign rap song called "Keep Your Head in the Game." In it, Troy sings to himself, "Why am I feelin' so wrong? My heart's in the game, but my heart's in the song." Taylor wants Gabriella to join the upcoming "Scholastic Decathlon," but Gabriella says she doesn't want to because she needs time to adjust to her new surroundings -- yet she's drawn to the drama club.

Meanwhile, Darbus gives detention to Troy, Gabriella, Sharpay, and Ryan for using their cell phones in class; they must paint sets for the upcoming musicale. (Yes, she pronounces the second syllable to rhyme with "gal.") Troy misses basketball practice and his dad the coach complains to the principal, who of course sides with him because sports are more important than theater. But Troy is still thinking about auditioning, and he gingerly broaches the subject with his father: "D'j'ever think of trying something new but were afraid of what your friends'd think?" Dad wisely says, "Maybe they're not your friends" -- but he doesn't take it well when he finds that Troy wants to be in a musical, exclaiming, "Y'know what a scholarship is worth these days?" Excellent point, except for one thing: Troy, played by Zac Efron, isn't much bigger than Joel Grey. Short basketball players don't get big bucks from colleges.

Troy sneaks into the auditions unnoticed just as Darbus tells those present, "Extend the wing-span of your creative spirit. This is where the truest expression of art is realized." And what musical is she doing? Anything Goes? Bye, Bye Birdie? Once Upon a Mattress? Actually, considering that East High is consumed with the Wildcats, she'd have been wise to choose Wildcat. But no; it's Twinkletown, a new show written by a student named Kelsey. (This saves Disney from paying royalties.) A bunch of talent-free auditionees humiliate themselves, including two who do an interpretive dance that causes Darbus to comment, "Very disturbing. Go see a counselor."

Gabriella just happens to walk in, sees Troy, and says, "Your friends don't know you're here, right?" Before he can say much, Sharpay and Ryan audition. Darbus intones, "Give us a sense of why we gather in this hallowed hall." We then see the Evanses perform a fully arranged and choreographed number from the show. (How they got the music in advance isn't explained.) When demure Kelsey says that they didn't quite do it the way she envisioned, Sharpay calls her "my sawed-off Sondheim" and then roars, "You do not offer direction, suggestions, or commentary. You should be thankful that me and Ryan are here to lift your music out of its obscurity."

Kelsey's terrible treatment by Sharpay spurs Gabriella and Troy to audition -- but Darbus says they're too late, and she exits. Still, the kids mollify the wounded Kelsey by doing the song her way. (They both can read music but, after a few bars, don't need to; they look at each other while singing, somehow knowing the lyrics, too.) It turns out that Darbus didn't leave after all; she overhears them and offers them a call-back. Sharpay screams, "I've already picked out the colors for my dressing room!" and Ryan huffs, "She hasn't even asked our permission to join the drama club!"

Meanwhile, Chad and friends urge Troy -- in song -- to "stick with the stuff you know, stick to the status quo." One basketball player confess that he's into baking; another admits to playing the cello. Chad blames Troy, saying, "Our team is coming apart because of your singing thing. The drama geeks and brainiacs think they can talk to us. Suddenly, people think they can do other stuff." Then he levels the worst charge of all: "They've got you thinking about show tunes when we've got a playoff game next week!" Later, he adds, "Have you ever seen Michael Crawford on a Wheaties box?" (Do you wonder how he knows him? Chad explains that his mother saw Phantom 27 times. Pretty good for an Albuquerque resident, no?)

Of course it all works out the way we want. Isn't that what always happens in high school?

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]