Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh – until 9 September 2017
A gentle romance combines reinforces the right-on message that you can be who you want, in LYAMC’s tuneful take on High School Musical at the Church Hill Theatre to Saturday.
There are more than 90 in the young cast – and at times they are all on stage at once – so there is plenty of power to be had. Combined with the large numbers is a real sense of musical confidence from the chorus as well as some well-measured lead performances.
If the company is solid to the core, however, the adaptation of the Disney film itself is at best flimsy. It creaks into business with more than a nod to Grease on the first day of a new term at East High School.
Teenagers Troy and Gabriella have met on holiday and locked eyes in that romantic way you do over an embarrassing karaoke duet – without actually going further than swapping phone numbers. Only to discover when the new term starts at that Gabriella has moved to Troy’s school.
The rub is that the true selves they could be when on holiday are a far cry from the characters who fit into the straightjacket of school social life. He is a hunky member of the Wildcats basketball team and she is a geeky maths wizz, prone to telling chemistry teachers where they have got their equations wrong.
Into the fire of Jock versus Brainiac, Logan Kean as Troy and Rachel Moir as Gabriella bring a sense of truth to the burgeoning teen romance. It starts with their body language on their awkward first meeting in their opening duet, Start of Something New, and evolves beautifully over the course of the show, to add a depth which, quite frankly, is not there in the material.
Around them, director Susan French marshals her troops well, as the Jocks and the Brainiacs find themselves competing in the not-quite neutral battleground of the drama club amidst the massed Thespians with their own leaders, Sharpay and her twin brother Ryan.
Emily Cooper brings a real maturity to the role of drama teacher Miss Darbus, whose eccentricities extend several steps beyond quirky and who has a deep-rooted loathing for Troy’s dad – basketball coach Bolton (Cameron Kilgore).
Ellie De Marco is a pleasurable Sharpay, the self-centred queen of the drama club. Perhaps too pleasurable as the role should have a killer vicious streak – something which De Marco hints at, rather than mines to its true depths. Matthew Steel is suitably larger-than-life as her side-kick twin brother Ryan.
There are great supporting performances all round, from the Jocks, Brainiacs and Thespians too. The drama detention with Miss Darbus is a proper riot – stand up and take a bow Michael Duncan as James, whose earthworm would have had even Joyce Grenfell applauding. While the tricky task of deliberately singing badly in Auditions is very well handled by all concerned.
In the Brainiacs, Clare Wootton has the right level of arogance and neediness, equalled by Fraser McAdam as chief Jock Chad – although both have more space to get even nastier with their roles. There is more humanity to be found in their side-kicks, Victoria Ritchie as Martha and Nico Han Rengifo as secret foodie Zeke, who has a significant case of the hots for Sharpay.
As the plot develops, with Gabriella and Troy finding themselves auditioning for the musical thanks to the persuasive powers of its author Kelsi (an always believable Hanna Ward), the scene is set for three way conflict. And all those minor characters take their chance to shine in Stick to the Status Quo.
Ruben Binney has plenty of presence as the school radio announcer, Jack Scott, who is crucial in keeping the story straight and drives the plot as it comes to a climax. He gets his tongue round the words fine, but sometimes they tumble out so fast its not easy to make out all the laugh lines.
Choreographer Fee Jackson, who has risen from the ranks of LYAMC, makes strong use of her female dance troupe, giving the Wildcat cheerleaders some great high-kicking routines which are performed with lithe precision.
Jackson misses a trick with the Wildcats themselves, however. Instead of incorporating bouncing basketballs into the choreography – or leaving the balls aside and choreographing raw basketball moves – they just dance around holding the balls in a fairly aimless manner which is only exacerbated by the strength of the cheerleaders and supporters.
There is solid support from the pit, where MD James McCutcheon ensures that the music never drowns out the singers. There are times where a bit more work on knitting the scenes together would not go amiss, but there’s nothing that doesn’t hold the whole thing back. And the big finale, with half the company singing out from the aisles, is sure to send you home humming a tune or two.