by Allison Mollenkamp
Some of the kids in this YAAL production weren’t born yet when High School Musical 2 first came out in 2007. It doesn’t affect the quality of the production. These kids did a great job. I just wanted to make everyone else feel old.
If you haven’t seen the first High School Musical movie or stage show, you may be a little
confused coming into this production. To fill you in: Troy and Gabriella are in love! They are good! Their friends are also good! Sharpay and Ryan are siblings! They are bad! Also, East High has a LOT of school pride, so expect many group dance numbers.
Okay, now that you’re caught up on the first movie, High School Musical 2 Jr. is a fitting summer show, because it takes our cast of high school friends/theatre kids/basketball players/mathletes on summer vacation. Through some maneuvering by Sharpay (Joselyn Tisdale), and some pleading on the part of Troy (Zach Stevens), basically everyone from East High ends up getting summer jobs at the country club Sharpay and Ryan’s family owns.
There is a lot to push and pull with these characters. Troy needs to figure out a way to pay for college, so Sharpay is able to manipulate him by dangling her father’s power over scholarships at a local university. Tisdale is appropriately conniving as Sharpay, but it’s hard to really hate her, because she does such an excellent job in the role. Her voice is big enough to fill the pop numbers (“Fabulous” is a personal favorite), and she’s acting up a storm. Stevens is in a constant state of conflict through the show, with a stand out moment at the end of “Gotta Go My Own Way,” where his acting is that of a much older performer.
Rounding out the leading cast are Berkley Nielson as Gabriella and Jackson Waller as Ryan Evans. I wish they’d had more to do, as they’re both delightful to watch. Nielson is sweet but switches well to anger and frustration. And Waller is clearly in his element as a dancer. Also, if you haven’t seen the second film, I lied a little bit: Ryan isn’t bad in this one. So we get to root for Waller as he helps his character out of his sister’s shadow.
This show really shines in the group numbers (go Wildcats!), when we get to hear this large cast sing all together, or in split off groups. The Sharpettes seem to be having quite a lot of fun with their own portions of Sharpay’s extravagance, and the Wildcats are dancing their hearts out every time they get on stage.
I feel I must share a Splash Zone warning for this show. In a particularly mischievous moment, Sharpay asks the country club’s long-suffering manager, Mr. Fulton (Shea Keelan), to turn on the sprinklers on the golf course, soaking Troy and Gabriella during a romantic picnic. The stage at YAAL doesn’t have golf course sprinklers, so in this production they are replaced by squirt bottles in the hands of other actors. In my seat on the aisle in the second row, I was squarely in range of the squirt bottles. So if you’re feeling a little warm on a hot August day, get a seat near the front.
There are really too many strong young performers to call out in this show. Keelan does an extraordinary job selling “I am a world-weary forty-year-old man in a frustrating job” despite being a teenage girl. Audrey Saksena brings a high level of energy to her role of Jack Scott. Hope Shortridge is loveable as Zeke. All these girls are asked to play roles written for boys, and the production lets it be, not commenting on the gender swap or on these characters relationships with other women. I’m not sure this would have been done even 10 years ago when I was in High School Musical Jr. It’s nice to know we live in a world where roles can go to the best performers, regardless of gender, and that it doesn’t have to be the main feature of the show.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the show came during “I Don’t Dance,” when Waller and Riley Brown (as Chad), broke out some pretty serious tap dance moves. This is personal preference, but I am almost always impressed by tap dancing. If you have people in your musical who can tap dance, let them tap dance! It’s fun! It makes cool sounds! And also, it always feels like a nod back to an older form of musical theatre.
Some of these kids weren’t born when High School Musical 2 had people my age glued to our TV screens. They also weren’t born in an era of 42nd Street-style tap numbers. But the great thing about theatre is they get to take joy from those styles anyway. They move from hip-hop to tap, from ballad to full-company dance number. In the process, it looks like they’re having a lot of fun.
If you go: Remaining performances for High School Musical 2 Jr. are August 3rd at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM at YAAL (Youth Actors Academy of Lincoln), 1233 Libra Drive in Lincoln. Tickets are available at the door and online.
Allison Mollenkamp is a reporter and producer for NET News. You may have seen her onstage at the Lincoln Community Playhouse or the STAGE Theater in Hickman. After a lifetime of moving around, she’s happy to find a home in the Lincoln theatre community. You can follow her on twitter @alliemollenkamp.
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