Stick to the stuff you know
If you want to be cool
Follow one simple rule
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo
No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
It is better by far
To keep things as they are
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status
Stick to the status
Stick to the status quo – “Stick to the Status Quo,” High School Musical
Watching The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical alongside an avowed HSM superfan like my husband was as entertaining as the show itself. He did his best to stifle singing along to his favorite numbers, occasionally verbalizing key lines of dialogue before a character onstage would, frequently noting (dramaturgically) to me differences between the film and the stage version. I suspect this is what it is like attending Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival with a lifelong Bard scholar? It was all kinds of adorable.
No doubt John has his own review to offer, but this is my blog. While I don’t find the HSM trilogy without its charms (well, the first and third installments at least … the second film is the Voldemort of Disney Channel tee-vee musicals … best never invoked again), I think the movies could stand a bit of tinkering, revising, and revisiting. And, in recent news emanating from last week’s D23 convention, it sounds like the Mouse House agrees.
While the HSM franchise gave us the gift that keeps on giving in Zac Efron, it also left a legacy a with a generation of twenty-somethings that it is good to be different, that you must never constrain yourself by the labels teachers/parents/friends slap upon you, and that singing show tunes is good for the soul … even in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. Whether you loved high school or really hated it, the movies speak in a cuddly and antiseptic way to the toxic socioeconomic hothouse that is public education in this country and how all of us are shaped for better or worse by the twelve years we spent there. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” – Kurt Vonnegut
As metaphor for inclusion and a fun platform for camp, HSM is a pretty genius choice for The Ringwald, whose stock in trade is as much John Waters as it is Stephen Sondheim. When I bought these tickets, I did so as a gift for John but also for myself as I was genuinely curious how they’d approach the show. I’m happy to report that the Ringwald’s team pulls it off in their shaggy dog, Mickey-and-Judy-are-putting-on-a-show fashion, with exceptional vocals, high energy, and (mostly) just the right amount of wink-and-nudge.
The plot is paper thin but nonetheless lovely: a science-loving girl (“Gabriella Montez”) and a basketball “jock” (“Troy Bolton”) discover their mutual love of show tunes on a mid-winter ski trip, and turn their high school “status quo” upside down by auditioning for the spring musical. It’s a slight but surprisingly subversive conceit, compounded by the fact that the “villains” of the piece – Sharpay and her doting brother Ryan (think The Carpenters, just as weirdly incestuous, but with blond hair, pink plaid outfits, and body glitter) – are the theatre kids, overly protective of their turf and their small corner of high school performative heaven. Anyone who’s worked in theatre in any aspect will view this duo with a knowing smile. The theatre community waves the flag of inclusion and understanding … until you step outside your “lane” or win a role someone else has coveted or challenge the artistic certitude of another.
The Ringwald’s production, populated as it is by a cast who, for the most part, would have been in elementary school when High School Musical debuted in 2006, is pleasantly reverential to the material, while not taking any of it too damn seriously. It’s a high wire act that I found, quite frankly, refreshing. Playing double duty as director and actor (“Coach Jack Bolton”), Brandy Joe Plambeck takes a breezy, frothy approach to the material, aided and abetted by his real-life husband Joe Bailey in the role of Sharpay. In Bailey’s hands, Sharpay is both comic and poignant, never shrill, and just the right side of arch. Bailey knows that a middle-aged man playing a heartbreakingly spoiled high school theatre diva is pretty damn funny in and of itself and that layering on any meta commentary or turning up his nose at the material would sink the show and his performance. It’s smart and it’s fun, and Bailey alongside his “brother” Ryan (Christopher Ross-Dybash exuding sunshine) are a hoot.
Similarly, frequent Ringwald player Jordan Gagnon brings a nicely grounded whimsy to Gabriella. In her program bio, she writes that she is “excited to be living out [my] childhood fantasies of playing Gabriella.” For the young people in this cast, I suspect HSM is to them what Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, or Mamma Mia! are to other generations. Gagnon’s affection for the material is evident. The actor knows the enterprise is a bit silly but treats it as the heightened reality it is, and Gagnon strikes just that perfect balance of nodding to the audience while believing in her bones that she is a marginalized high schooler finding her true voice in life and love. She’s a delight to watch.
Gagnon’s real-life boyfriend Matthew Wallace (I’m not telling tales … it’s in the marketing materials for the production) plays Troy. He is at his best when it is just the two of them onstage. There is an easy comfort to their onstage dynamics that really sells their numbers. I would encourage Wallace to find that same ease in the rest of the production. He has been exceptional in productions like The Dio’s Forever Plaid and The Ringwald’s own Merrily We Roll Along. Here, however, his physicality and high energy run the risk of commenting upon the material and distancing himself from it, as opposed to immersing himself in the goofy joy of the narrative. Wallace has a fabulous voice, and he and Gagnon are so good together onstage, but Wallace at times seems to be accentuating the stereotype of the thick-headed high school athlete as opposed to realizing the point of the piece is to gently, lovingly undermine those stereotypes.
The ensemble is damn terrific, selling the big group numbers in Ringwald’s tiny space, and energizing the audience with their unbridled enthusiasm for the score. Music director Lily Belle Czartorski and choreographer Molly Zaleski have great fun with the “pop” nature of this material, and their cast rises to the challenge. Standouts are Rashna “Rashi” Sarwar as “Taylor McKessie” and Geoffrey Schwerin as “Zeke Baylor,” both of whom squeeze every bit of juice from their limited stage moments, crafting memorable, lovable, vibrant characters. Tyler Goethe also deserves a shout out for nailing every bit of the choreography – again, note that I was sitting beside a “superfan” and it was not lost on him (or me) that Tyler was on point with every single move and was utterly present throughout. Wendy Cave plays “Kelsi Nielsen,” the resident high school songsmith, awfully big. She lands great laughs, but she also skates on the edge of commentary as opposed to immersion.
Having the time of their lives onstage are the aforementioned Plambeck as “Coach” and Suzan M. Jacokes as drama teacher “Ms. Darbus,” two educators whose dreams deferred manifest in ugly rivalries and provincial manipulations, all nobly disguised as wanting “what’s best” for their charges. If there was dramatic metaphor for the crises, both large and small, of today, it’s this. Jacokes and Plambeck are great fun in their short scenes together.
Costuming by Vince Kelley is just as one would hope, mirroring without shamelessly imitating the iconic garb of the original film. I want to give a special call out to the show’s marketing materials, as well, which evoke the look and feel of the original film’s poster and set the right tone for what to expect, as does the pre-show music: “Kidz Bop” versions of early-aughts pop music hits. Hysterical! The new lighting array at The Ringwald is a welcome upgrade with Plambeck making great use of gels and specials to maximize the understandably understated set design by Stephen Carpenter, a pitch perfect “Wildcat” logo prominent throughout.
For those wondering: yes, The Ringwald’s version of High School Musical is family-friendly, but with plenty of acknowledgment to any adults in the audience that this is all one big lark, albeit one with a really nifty message of inclusion and acceptance. If you aren’t tapping your feet or dancing in the aisles during the “We’re All In This Together” finale, well, there’s just no hope for you!
The Ringwald’s production of Disney’s High School Musical runs through September 16. Purchase tickets here.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.