Last night, as I was driving the van home from work, I was listening to one of the many podcasts on my iPod. In this case, it was one of the Ensemblist podcasts, specifically one of their rehearsal reports on the soon-to-open The School of Rock. In this report, Jessie Swimm (one of the swings) talked about how they had been doing constant changes to the production throughout tech, and the gypsy run was going to be the first time they had put everything together. I thought about this last night at the Alumni Performance of High School Musical at Nobel Middle School (FB) — which was only the second time (IIRC) that the cast and crew had done a complete run through of the show, after adding in lots of last minute transitions and dealing with technology problems.
Before I go further, you’re probably wondering why I’m attending an alumni performance of a middle school musical. The answer is that my daughter was heavily involved with this program during its first two years, and as I write up all shows, as a drama parent-alumni, we’re considered special. We get to go to the alumni shows, and provide some comments to the cast and crew. What that means for you, dear reader, is that I’m going to operate on the assumption that most of the minor correctable problems that we saw last night will be worked out when the show opens on December 3rd.
I will note, however, that the show has one major uncorrectable problem — which given where it is performed is probably not a problem for most. It is, unfortunately, Disney’s High School Musical. This means we’re dealing with a Made-for-TV musical not originally designed for the stage, and designed specifically for the sort of audience that watches the Disney Channel. I’ll give you an example. As the show opens, we have our two protagonists, Troy and Gabriella, talking about the wonderful person of the opposite sex that they met on school break, and not telling their friends how they were a completely different person away from school… and not realizing they were now at the same school. It was expecting them to start singing “Summer Nights” (but this isn’t Grease). At another point in the show, all the kids are on their telephones exchanging gossip about a budding romance between the main characters. Again — “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie, anyone? The storyline is also quite predictable: not only do our protagonists get to star in the show, but they get to star and excel in their individual activities as well, …. , and all their friends end up coupling with their equivalent in a different clique that they hated before. Yes, a happy ending, but just so Disney.
Oh, what is the plot? MTI, the licensing company, summarizes it as follows: “It’s the first day after winter break at East High. The Jocks, Brainiacs, Thespians and Skater Dudes find their cliques, recount their vacations, and look forward to the new year. Basketball team captain and resident jock Troy discovers that the brainy Gabriella, a girl he met singing karaoke on his ski trip, has just enrolled at East High. They cause an upheaval when they decide to audition for the high school musical, led by Ms. Darbus. Although many students resent the threat posed to the “status quo,” Troy and Gabriella’s alliance might just open the door for others to shine as well.” Here’s the full detailed summary from IMDB. Then again, if you have kids, you’ve probably seen it over and over. You might have even heard the music (I’ll admit that I do have the album — a number of the songs are quite catchy). Who wrote it? According to MTI, the book is by David Simpatico, and the music is by (take a deep breath): Matthew Gerrard, Robbie Nevil, Ray Cham, Greg Cham, Drew Seeley, Randy Petersen, Kevin Quinn, Andy Dodd, Adam Watts, Bryan Louiselle, Faye Greenberg, Jamie Houston, and David N. Lawrence. IMDB credits the original film to Peter Barsocchini.
So you know my opinion of the show. I went in not expecting much from the book. But it is not my expectations that matter. This is High School Musical, after all. It is being presented in a middle school. Parents are not the audience: other kids are. This is just the type of show that the kids will enjoy. Not just “will”, but “do enjoy”. The other alumni at the show we saw were having loads of fun with the stereotypes and the first kisses and the holding hands. They don’t want deep drama. Kids like fluff, and this will be very popular.
Even if the characters are stereotypes, exaggerating the comical characteristics of each group for humor instead of seeing people as people. Wait, that sounds like the plot of the show. Hmmm.
In any case, the show will succeed if the performances succeed, and this is one case where the enthusiasm of the kids comes through. We were at an early show, but began to see how performances improved as the audience reacted and had fun. We were a small audience. With a full audience of peers, these kids should be great.
One advantage of reviewing a middle school show is that I don’t have to link all the kids names — they won’t have professional pages and you don’t link to a tween or early-teens Facebook. So lets talk about some of the strong points, and just go clique by clique, in program order.
The Cheer Squad consisted of Daniela Johns [Varsity Captain], Harmony Nielsen, Inaya Durfield, Jeannhel Odero, and Taylor Briones. This was a very energetic group of girls who had some strongly athletic moves and flips.
The Jocks consisted of Maddex Tortorici [Troy Bolton], Akshat Bansal [Chad Danforth], Joshua Pereira [Zeke Baylor], Colby Haney, Gannon Ripchick, Jacob Gilliam, Jordan Ellison, and Justin Godinez. The adult “jock”, Coah Bolton, was Kevin Foster. Maddex Tortorici, in his first singing performance, got to play the lead. He actually did a very good job performance-wise, and his duets with Gabriella were quite nice. Also strong was the tall fellow playing his best friend, whom I’m guessing was Akshat Bansal. Kevin Foster did a great job as the coach.
The “Braniacs” (a horrible word) consisted of Mandi Macias [Gabriella Montez], Payton Blanks [Taylor McKessie], Julia Denny [Martha Cox], Anthony Carmona, Carolyn Lindsay, Isabella Tapia, Jillian Jergensen, Kylie Hamuel, Sarah Borquez, and Thadiel Zancoli. Mandi Macias was great on stage, performing very strongly and having a great voice. I also enjoyed the performances of both Payton Blanks and Julia Denny.
The Thespian Clique consisted of Brooke Kier [Sharpay Evans], Shane Smith [Ryan Evans], Abigail Beck [Kelsi Nielsen], Arno Nizamian, Daniella Jones, Jordyn Lowe, Nareg Hanessian, Natalie Chavez, and Timi Akinsola. The real standout here was Abigail Beck’s performance as Kelsi. She demonstrated a lovely voice and seemed to be really into the role. Brooke Kier was good as Sharpay, but the character as written is a bit overdone, which probably tempered my reaction (translation: she performed it well, but I wasn’t crazy about the character). The reactions of Shane Smith to Brooke were quite fun to watch. The adult teacher, Mr. Barbus, was played (if not overplayed, but again, that’s how it was written) by Sam Katz. Sam captured the intentional comedic aspects of the character well.
The Skater Clique consisted of Adam Jacobsen [Jack Scott], Gavin Riley [Ripper], Amanda Pipolo [Mango], Carlie Birnbaum, Chirstina Povolotsky, Kyle Kaplan, Nina Krassner-Cybulski, and Rana Amet. Adam Jacobsen was fun to watch in the radio booth, and the whole crew did some great acrobatics on stage. Their interaction with the cheerleaders was fun to watch.
The last group was the Wildcat Band, which was actually the award-winning Nobel Drum Line and Advanced Band. They consisted of Anthony Collado, Aurora Torres, Benjamin Maines, Brandon Azoy, Christina Sottile, Gabrielle Martinez, Gilberto Cornejo, Iman Khan, Kenny Ceron, Moises Sabido, Noah Chisom, Owen Jennings, Scott Robinson, Spencer Mandel, Travis Jackson, and Venessa Villegas. It was a joy to see these musicians there — I strongly believe in live music where ever possible. I encourage Nobel to seriously consider incorporating the music department into these productions. It really does make a difference.
I’ll note there was some very good performances of songs, especially in the large group numbers. There were also some wonderful dance moves. I still think Nobel does remarkable shows for a middle school. This year seemed a bit of a building year, with a lot of new performers who are just starting to grow. That’s fine — this is a middle school, after all, and these kids aren’t professionals. But they are learning wonderful skills that will serve them whatever their careers, and they deserve our support.
Turning to the production credits: The set design was by Ben Tiber, and worked really well — lots of welded steel and steps and risers, with clever integration of backdrops to establish place. I’m guessing the Wildcat costumes were rented, given their quality and the pinning on the back. The remaining costumes, which I’m sure the students created, worked well to establish their character’s looks. Kat Delancey was the music director. Choreography was by Carolyn Doherty and Midison Tilner. Prop Coordinator was Kamille Flack. Lighting Designer was Artur Cybulski. There are loads of additional production and crew credits, so I’m only going to list the traditionally listed ones: Vivian Chu was the Stage Manager, and Jaden Weinstein was the House Manager. The production was directed by Fanny Araña, Carolyn Doherty, and Ryan Wynott.
High School Musical runs at Nobel Middle School in Northridge through Saturday, December 5th. Should you go see it? If you have a tween or a teen — go. They’ll enjoy it, and they’ll get a kick about the quality that can come from their peers. If you’re not connected to the youth of American, it still is worth seeing — if you can get over the fact it is HSM— just to see the quality that can come out of a middle school that is actually not a performing arts magnet. This is all parents and volunteers and dedicated teachers, working with dedicated students, that create the magic. So, translation: yeah, go see it, even if it is HSM.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: December starts with High School Musical at Nobel Middle School (FB) (running December 1-4) — this is a middle school that does surprisingly good productions (although we may be biased a little — our daughter was there for the first two years of their program). It is followed by “El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on December 5. During the week I become a producer, when we present The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam as the dinner entertainment at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). The weekend after the conference sees us at the NoHo Arts Center (FB) for Theatre 68 (FB)’s production of Who Killed Santa?, which sounded so warped as to be either extremely funny or extremely stupid– should be fun to watch! The third weekend of December brings the touring company of “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). The last weekend of December has “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and Nunsense at Crown City Theatre (FB). I’m just starting to plan 2016 — I’ve been waiting on the Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) schedule. So far, January shows “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also a “hold” (i.e., dates blocked, but awaiting ticketing) for “Louis and Keeley – Live at the Sahara” at The Geffen Playhouse (FB) for either January 2 or 16 (pending tickets on Goldstar). There is currently nothing on the schedule for February, except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.