YAAL Delivers Earnest, Charming Production of “High School Musical, Jr.”

by Cooper Christiancy

When the Disney Channel original movie High School Musical first hit airwaves in 2006, I was among its prime viewing demographic at only 9 years old. For a whole generation of young people, HSM was their first introduction to the world of musical theatre, and I have no doubt it was the inspiration for many thespians of a certain age to begin their acting careers. So, I was naturally excited to visit and review Youth Actor’s Academy of Lincoln’s (YAAL) production of High School Musical, Jr., which opened August 3 at their mainstage in South Lincoln. I was curious about how this millennial classic would be handled by a new generation of young actors who were not around for the original “High School Musical craze;” I also wondered how the story of the original would hold up after nearly 13 years in the hands of a new crowd of kids.

By the conclusion of the 2-act performance, I had my answers. YAAL’s High School Musical, Jr. is a charming and enthusiastic production buoyed by a strong ensemble performance. Furthermore, it illustrates the power and importance of youth theatre opportunities in our community. I encourage theater lovers of all ages to support it.

As I began my High School Musical, Jr. experience, I entered YAAL’s main stage to a nearly packed house for opening night. The buzz of young children and families brings a special energy to youth theatre productions. For their first show, the cast was treated to an unconditional encouragement from their audience that certainly allowed them to relax and explore their characters and the new world they were inhabiting. I kept having to remind myself that these young people had only 2 weeks of their theatre camp to prepare this production. That makes every part of this charming show, from choreography to line memorization to the lovingly crafted set, seem even more impressive.

The stage itself is frequently filled with cast members. The first act has several ensemble numbers and the audience notices the extra effort made to include the entire cast in as many scenes as possible. This is a bit of a challenge due to the size of YAAL’s stage; It sometimes feels crowded up there! Despite this, the flexible set and the professionalism of the cast helps alleviate a sense of claustrophobia. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the production was noticing the commitment of the young ensemble actors in the background. Even when the spotlight isn’t on them, they remain engaged in the scene, committing to their roles with facial expressions, blocking, and contagious enthusiasm. The little things aren’t overlooked in this production. Director Christina Docter has obviously done a great job coaching her ensemble and encouraging them to develop their technical aspects of performance. The actors, to their credit, must be quick learners and eager participants, because they take to these challenges with an enthusiasm that makes this show pop.

The production’s leads bring confidence and experience that allow the audience to breathe in between big, crowded ensemble numbers. Jackson Waller (Troy Bolton) and Nyah Rasmussen (Gabriella Montez) represent their cast well as leads with perfect projection and poise. Hailey Truell and Tyler Stover are great as dramatic Drama Club president Sharpay Evans and her brother Ryan Evans. They expertly capture the caricatured snobbishness of this pair and their physical characterizations are very well executed. Maya Brown deserves praise for her scene-stealing turn as Kelsi Nielsen. Her commitment to this role sets a model for the rest of the cast, and her performance quickly wins over the audience with its earnestness and practiced polish. Frankly, I think actors twice as old as this young cast could learn from their exuberance and willingness to embody their performances without holding back.

Although these leads brought great leadership to their roles, High School Musical, Jr. really shines in its ensemble numbers. In one scene, as characters are auditioning for the school musical, the ensemble has a chance to play onstage to charming results. “Stick to the Status Quo,” the final number before the close of Act I, bursts with energy. Choreography, though not very complex, was well fit for the cast and stage. Projection and vocal volume issues, which are usually a challenge for youth productions, aren’t a big deal here. Even the smallest cast member belts out their lines for the back row. If cast members are looking to improve before their next casting call, they may consider working on diction, polished choreography, and line/musical cues. There were some instances when dialogue lost its pacing and left the audience struggling to catch up. But even that is a minor quibble. These kids have a better grasp of their performance with only 2 weeks rehearsal than some seasoned, mature actors have on opening night. Overall, this is due to the work of the YAAL directing staff (Christina Docter and Hannah Lambert) and the entire cast, who made it all seem so fun.

High School Musical’s story is perfect for a stage like the one at YAAL. The original movie sent a message to children back in 2006 about the accessibility of their dreams. In the production, the cast members find themselves running up against stereotypes, cliques, and labels in their efforts to become their unique, authentic selves. As I was watching this production, I couldn’t help but think that youth theater opportunities like the ones found at YAAL are the perfect symbolic conclusion to this story. By granting kids a place to play, explore, and learn about the performing arts, YAAL and other programs like it in Lincoln are fulfilling a vital need. They provide a stage, a place to break the status quo, and a place for kids to join up, have fun together, and craft their identities. It’s fitting that HSM, with its messages of community and accessibility, should come to YAAL. The program has a commitment to providing these opportunities to kids in Lincoln.

I hope you take the time to support YAAL and other youth theater programs in Lincoln any way you can. You won’t regret it. Young people have a funny way of reminding us why we love theatre in the first place. In one of their final numbers, the actors of YAAL’s High School Musical, Jr. sing “We’re all in this together.” The special part is, while you watch those kids having fun together on stage, you get the sense that they really are.

High School Musical, Jr. has three scheduled productions between August 3 and 4. YAAL is located at 1233 Libra Dr #2 in Lincoln and has numerous opportunities for young actors to learn performance skills regardless of financial ability. Their next theatre camp is Shrek the Musical, Jr. and has performances October 12-14. More information at yaal.org

Cooper Christiancy is a lifelong Lincolnite with a deep love of all things dramatic (theatrical and otherwise). He graduated from UNL in 2018 with degrees in Communication Studies and Global Studies.

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