My cultural tastes are strikingly similar to those of a tween-age girl.
Please keep that in mind during the course of this review. When I say Albuquerque Little Theatre's production of High School Musical 2 is a beguiling and delightful family-friendly play, I'm not being facetious. It's well-cast, well-sung and should be seen by anyone who's been swept up by High School Musical fever.
I understand there’s skepticism surrounding a play based on a sequel of a made-for-TV Disney movie. Admittedly, it would be unfair to assert that you’d enjoy this production if you 1) hate musicals, 2) dislike teen dramas or 3) don't find high school catfights exhilarating. But those folks stopped reading this review immediately after the reality of the opening sentence set in. For those of you still onboard this train, stocked with adolescent intrigue, let's continue on down the track.
The play sticks closely to basic plot elements of the film from which it's inspired. The second installment of High School Musical finds our crew of East High Wildcats about to embark on their long-awaited summer vacation. Basketball phenom and all-around nice guy Troy Bolton (played by Caleb Horst) needs a summer job. He's soon offered a position at a local country club. Being the noble, selfless soul he is, Troy lobbies successfully for his fellow Wildcats to be hired on as well.
Everything seems like it's going to work out just fine for our hero and his lovely girlfriend Gabriella Montez (Amanda Morales). But East High's resident drama queen Sharpay Evans (Caitlin Wees) has other plans. Sharpay wants to steal Troy away from Gabriella, and she doesn't care how many priceless friendships she destroys in the process. There's also a talent show squeezed in there, to ensure the full cast has an excuse to do one last song before the curtains close.
While the plot moves linearly from premise to conflict to conclusion, the only way to get there is via a boatload of songs. For fans of the franchise, the song and dance routines are the whole point. The theater production’s choreography is simpler than the film's involved routines. That doesn't hurt the overall entertainment value, though, and everyone on stage is clearly familiar with how to cut a rug. Most importantly for High School Musical fanatics, all the essential songs in the sequel's catalog are covered. I mean, what's the point of seeing High School Musical 2 if you don't get to see Troy belt out "Bet On It"? Am I right?
Horst, who plays Troy, has the unenviable task of matching the mountain of charisma and charm that is Zac "Too Cool to Put a K or an H at the End of My Name" Efron. Fortunately, Horst fits the bill, right down to his Efron-esque mop-top. He's not only amiable but a strong singer and a dancing machine. Generally, the cast fits nicely into the mold created by their predecessors. There is no weird re-imagining of, say, Gabriella as a stoner trustafarian or Sharpay as a biker babe.
My No. 1 fear going into the performance was that the actors would be incapable of hitting their (considerable) notes. That worry was quickly and thoroughly assuaged as each cast member proved to have capable pipes. Morales in particular has tremendous range and versatility.
But the biggest feather in the cast's cap is that each player seems to genuinely enjoy each other. High School Musical is based on the prospect that a group of friends can stick together no matter what happens. That requires a group of actors who genuinely enjoy being around one another, because camaraderie is tough to fake. The people on stage often seem like they’re fighting off a group hug. (It's worth mentioning that there is one actual group hug in the performance.)
High School Musical 2 captures all the whimsy and unrealistic amounts of joy that its cinematic counterpart did when it hit the airwaves. And judging from the exuberant crowd reaction from senior citizens, small children and teens, its appeal is wider than the tween demographic. Leave your pretensions at the door and dive in.