Review: High School Musical at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre

No, Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre has not turned into a movie house. Yes, you heard right: High School Musical is playing on their stage now through July 18. This Indianapolis theatre piece, geared towards bringing Indianapolis kids and their families into Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre, offers a remake of Disney’s original made for TV movie High School Musical. Teens experience the pressure of high school, cliques and first love all month at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre. Tickets are $35.00 to $58.00, with a $10.00 discount for kids age three to fifteen. Admissions includes the play as well as Chef Odell Ward’s buffet, unlimited coffee, tea and lemonade and FREE parking. With 36 performances left, this Indianapolis event is perfect for young fans of all things Disney.

It may seem a bit ridiculous for any reputable theatre in Indianapolis to produce something like High School Musical. This Disney-fied interpretation of life in high school misrepresents real life in more ways than one. I have to admit, when I first learned last January that  Beef and Boards 2010 season included a stage adaptation of a made for TV movie, I was little embarrassed for them. But as the months passed and High School Musical approached, I was determined to keep an open mind. After all, I hated country music before Always. . . Patsy Cline, and now the country singer ranks among the top played artists on my iPod. With a precedent like that, maybe Beef and Boards can make anything good.

Media night came for this latest Indianapolis performing arts offering, and as I pulled into the Beef and Boards parking lot, my perspective clicked into focus. A Radio Disney tent blasted sugary pop music on the lawn of this Indianapolis theatre as entire families dressed in their Sunday best approached the famed green awning. I was beginning to see the validity in producing such pandering drivel. High School Musical is not for theatre lovers who garner great thrill from challenging drama, witty comedy or site specific theatre. Its not even for adults looking for an intimate evening out, unless you count the pride and pleasure they gain from spending an evening with their children. Like all Disney products, the target audience are young kids. And I can never ever fault a theatre for introducing children to live performance, no matter what it is.

Not the stuff of great American theatre, this sunny musical revolves around squeaky clean teens as they belt songs with the right message. The great thematic messages are simple: be yourself, be adventurous, try new things, don’t be defined by your friends or what others think is possible. The fictional world of high school created in High School Musical lands no where near reality, relying heavily on stereotypes in grades nine through twelve to convey a message. None of the characters are believable; they are written as such. But the paper thin plot focuses on breaking free from these stereotypes, an idea that is immensely important for kids today. The show intends to arm kids, tweens and teens with the confidence they need to navigate the tumultuous waters of growing up as they face difficult and definitive choices in their formative years.

The script is cut and dry. Troy meets Gabriella. They come from different worlds. They both try something new, breaking free of their worlds, and in the process setting everyone else free from the boundaries of cliques. Directed by Eddie Curry, the show knows what it is from beginning to end. Curry understands that his target audience are children, who tend to see the world in black and white. Thus, each character is initially shaped to fit into a specific box. As the script climaxes, he begins to paint with shades of gray, yet fails to push too far from these established stereotypes. He chooses instead to play the comedy of such general understandings of differences. In this way, he ably communicates on the same level as his young target audience, who prefers to laugh than think. The message is there. There is no reason to beat their heads with it.

Tim Barsten and Jessica Ann Murphy don the heart throb roles of Troy and Gabriella, respectively. Murphy is a natural born star, with stage presence to spare. As an actor she has an elusive and highly sought after commodity: the ability to draw the audience’s eye from the moment she steps on stage. As Troy, Barsten is the typical object of teenage desire. Shaggy blonde locks, blue eyes and a smile that can make a twelve year old’s heart melt put him in perfect position for the role. However, neither role presents a real acting challenge. They are just typical kids. In fact they are the most well rounded and realistically written of all the students at the fictional East High School. Both Barsten and Murphy have wonderful voices, performing some of the most tuneful romantic ballads that have been on stage at Beef and Boards in my time as a critic. However, it is clear that at times Murphy carries Barsten through a song, as either uncertainty or vocal flubs cause him to falter.

In the villainous role of Sharpay Evans, Lara Hayhurst shines. Playing the part of an over dramatic theatre queen creates certain boundaries of confusion on stage. Is she over acting? Or is it a character choice? Hayhurst never falters in making her intentions clear. She goes for the comedic jugular in her commitment to her loud mouth, overly obnoxious schtick. As she plays to the extremes of her character (annoying, spiteful, conniving, motivated, spoiled), Hayhurst keeps the show moving. When the entire cast of characters (and perhaps some of the audience) groan every time her shrill voice beings a song, Hayhurst can feel confident that she has achieved her goals.

As her twin brother Ryan, J Tyler Whitmer is a victim in sequin and pink denim. With a beautiful sound, Whitmer makes duets between Ryan and Sharpay bearable. Like Hayhurst, Whitmer is comfortable digging for comedic gold. With fewer opportunities than his female counterpart, he confidently grabs laughs when his turn comes, patiently playing her straight man while he waits.

As the only two “adults” on stage, Karen Pappas takes on the role of Mrs. Darbus while Jeff Stockberger tackles Coach Butler. As the touchy feely drama teacher and the hard nosed championship hungry basketball coach, each character is, again, written to extreme cliches. However, Pappas and Stockberger have fun on stage, making them lovable goofs that just don’t understand these woes of the teenage world. As usual, Stockberger is a genius when it comes to physical comedy, peppering in a few bits here and there. After all, what do kids love more than seeing someone in physical pain?

The ensemble in High School Musical plays an important role throughout. The whole cast is faced with high energy singing and dancing from start to finish. Numbers originally intended for film are difficult to sustain night after night for an entire month. But this cast doesn’t show an ounce of tiredness. Featured ensemble members include Shavanna A. Calder as Gabriella’s best brainiac friend Taylor, Stephanie Joiner as the playwright of the conflict creating school musical and Pete Scharbrough as Zeke Baylor the jock/ culinary artist.

Calder has great energy on stage as Gabriella’s confidant. Though she never competes for the spotlight, she too shares some of Murphy’s elusive “X-Factor,” drawing the eye scene after scene. Joiner dons the role of the shy playwright with a strong sense of work ethic. She is simply adorable as the overly enthusiastic theatre nerd, who first spots Troy and Gabriella’s talent. Finally, Scharbrough stands a head taller than his fellow basketball team mates. With a jovial face and an honest voice, he sweetly shares his passion for making sweets.

In the end, one important question remains about High School Musical. Is perpetuation the stereotypes of high school dangerous or useful? In Beef and Boards production, comedy from these stereotypes wins out, making it an extremely useful production. What better way to conquer something than to laugh at it? Not to mention the hundreds of kids who will experience live theatre outside of school field trips at Beef and Boards production of High School Musical. Instilling a passion for all aspects of art is an important part of development.

Beef and Boards apparently recognizes this, as they gave one young fan of High School Musical the chance to assist in scenic design for the show. Eighteen year old Tim Hills, who suffers from cerebral palsy, worked closely with resident scenic and lighting designer Michael Layton to create the set for High School Musical. Working with one finger and a digital program, Hills created a useful playing space with levels that accommodated various locations throughout the play. His interest in Disney’s High School Musical created an initial connection to the theatre. But his experience now extends well beyond simply enjoying the characters and story. In short, High School Musical is getting kids excited about theatre. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!

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High School Musical
Now through July 18

Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre
9301 North Michigan Road
Indianapolis, IN 46268