|Pictured above (on the upper level) David Vandyke ("Ryan"), Max Nevers ("Troy"), Emily|
Niebergall ("Gabriella"), Hallie Bartel ("Sharpay"), and Marlena Starrs
("Ms. Debus"). Photo by Frank Hunt.
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
On a cold, rainy winter afternoon, spending two hours watching 20+ young teens sing, dance, and act can be a real treat. The STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy production of Disney’s High School Musical, currently playing at Hillsboro’s HART Theatre, is just such an experience.
Is the show great art? Of course not – it’s the latest iteration of a formula that began 80 years ago with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, since carried on in Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, and a host of other teen-themed productions. Boy meets girl, high school peer pressure (exemplified by the evil drama queen Sharpay and narrow-minded adults) conspires to separate the pair and thwart their dreams. Eventually love, reason, fair play, and convenient cell phones foil the wicked plot.
The thin story line is held together by an exceptionally hard-working and enthusiastic cast comprised primarily of middle schoolers, with a handful of high school-aged students filling some of the more mature roles. As we would expect with actors in that age range, there is wide variation in the quality of the solo numbers, but musical director Jenae Gregory and Vocal Coach Barb Edwards have succeeded in molding the group into a harmonious and powerful vocal ensemble. We are even more impressed by the quantity and quality of the dancing and the complexity of Director/Choreographer Luis Ventura’s choreography. The entire cast is engaged in many of the dance numbers, and they display impeccable timing that actually seems to support the crisply coordinated vocal work. The basketball work integrated into the choreography of “Getcha’ Head in the Game” calls for a new level of coordination rarely demanded of amateur dancers, and the one slight bobble we saw at the Sunday matinee in no way diminished our enjoyment – nor did it distract the dancers.
Many performers display surprisingly mature acting skills; a quick glance at the cast bios reveals a depth of experience unexpected in such a young cast. Our ability to comment on individual performances is limited, as several roles are double cast. Of the actors we saw, we particularly enjoyed Marlena Starrs (“Ms. Darbus”), Hallie Bartel (“Sharpay”), David Vandyke (“Ryan Evans”), Max Nevers (“Troy Bolton”), Emily Niebergall (“Gabriella Montez”), and Sarah Felder (“Kelsi”), Caleb Inman (“Coach Bolton”), and Julianne Robinson (“Taylor”). The cheerleaders form a smoothly athletic dance team, but Caleb Kinder (“Chad”) is perhaps the strongest and most eye-catching dancer in the show. The massive set actually seems to expand, rather than diminish, the limited space available on the HART’s tiny stage, and the scene changes are integrated seamlessly into the production.
In addition to introducing young audiences to live theater (the little girl in Row C dancing along with the cast was just adorable!), STAGES is helping to fill the educational gap created by reductions in arts funding for public schools. A few dedicated adults provide the framework and training, then step back and allow the young performers and crew members to bring the show to life – the show’s key message is that kids need to be allowed to grow and test themselves in new and unexpected ways, and the actual production fulfills precisely this role.
Disney’s High School Musical runs at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, January 25th with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. matinees on Sunday.
Auditions for "Belles on Their Toes", the sequel to"Cheaper by the Dozen" are being held on Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 19th and 20th from 6 to 8:30pm at My Binding, 5500 NE Moore Court Hillsboro, OR 97124. www.stagesyouth.org.