Executive Content Editor
This month, UC Santa Barbara’s Shrunken Heads Production Company presented “High School Musical: On Stage!” in the Thunderdome. The decision to produce this early 2000s cult Disney classic filled the college student crowd with both nostalgia and bewilderment. After all, does High School Musical still have a place in the modern era of the 2020s?
Entering the Thunderdome, the atmosphere of a high school-level production immediately rang through the air as audiences saw the large basketball court split into two by an elevated stage and a simple “Wildcats” red and white backdrop. It was not long until the music started and some of the ensemble, a squad of Wildcat cheerleaders, fled to the floor-level stage and began singing a distinctly lower-sounding, in both pitch and volume, “We’re All in This Together.”
After the lead song, audiences were introduced to the two stars: Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez. Despite the continuous efforts to showcase a budding relationship, Troy and Gabriella were decently-played protagonists with little romantic chemistry, aside from the nice blend of their voices.
The real stars of the show were, truly, everyone else. The ensemble was a powerhouse, often carrying the show at dull or lacking points. The moments often overlooked in the original movie were exacerbated in the best ways at the Thunderdome. Arguably, the most pleasant surprise was their performance in between scenes while auditioning for the play — the display of dance and acting across all of the cast reminded me of a charming, competitive atmosphere similar to “A Chorus Line.” The ensemble’s continuous surprises, from Ms. Darbus’s impartiality to Sharpy and Ryan to a particular “worm” continuing to shudder on the floor, were what distinctly made the show entertaining.
The consistent fan favorites were Sharpay, with her incredibly sassy and overdramatic manner that was very on-brand for the character. Her brother Ryan’s strong singing skills and nuanced personality came as a pleasant surprise to the often underrated role. Their performances were truly movie-worthy, and their building conflict as Ryan grew increasingly fed up with Sharpay’s narcissism continuously filled the dome with laughter, cheering, and joy. The only problem was Sharpay’s singing; while rightfully wanting to keep the character’s distinctly annoying voice, my friend and I worried for the actress’s extended use of vocal fry, especially in “What I’ve Been Looking For.” While Sharpay is meant to be irritating, we felt the actress could have still showcased more warmth and less fry in voice.
However, Troy Bolton’s character was indecipherable from the start. Awkward, shy, and sometimes off-putting with his “teamwork-oriented” words of encouragement, this version of Troy is hard to place. Unlike Zac Efron’s original gravitas, this Troy was less confident and cool. Was this intentional? Did they try to make him more cheeky and down-to-earth, like Joshua Basset’s more emotionally-candid portrayal in High School Musical, The Musical: The Series? Yet, Shrunken Heads Production’s Troy simply lacked the charm and heartfeltness of the iconic character many 2000s kids had grown up adoring. Throughout the play, his not-so-budding connection with Gabriella resulted in a few nods and slight giggles, while his occasional voice cracks led to a mesh of polite smiles. We all wanted Troy Bolton to succeed, but where was he?
With more consciously modern directing decisions, such as having both a gender-inclusive cheerleader squad and basketball team, audiences immediately recognized how the 2006-scripted production might try to echo more of what high school is like today. However, with this came numerous problems and discrepancies. Despite having the Wildcats audition for a more “feminist take” on Romeo and Juliet, the play’s core still focused on 2000s-era stereotypes with a literal commandment chalkboard of “rules” to fit in with your clique. Despite Sharpay telling Ryan to “Google” Gabriella, the entire cast still uses dated plastic flip-phones. The question becomes: are we in contemporary times or still reminiscing the 2000s? When does this play actually take place?
Both of these questions about Troy’s character and the timing of the production came to somewhat of an answer during a pinnacle scene between Troy and his basketball coach and father, Coach Bolton. Throughout the show, Coach Bolton’s stagnantly aggressive demeanor and tendency to shout suggested he was both meaner and less warm than his movie descriptions and also suffering from mic issues. In the scene where Troy defends his decision to join the school play to his athletics-focused father, he paints a highly different father-son relationship, but one arguably more distinct and relatable to current (or recent) high schoolers. In this scene, we see a father being too hard on his son for wanting to try more things in school rather than stay solely focused on a career that would set him up for success: basketball. Was this relationship a critique on modern high school pressures to stay focused on traditional marks of success, whether it be for college applications or resumes? Was this the meaning behind “Keep Your Head in the Game?” Audiences didn’t have time to find out because, in typical Disney fashion, the conflict was over as soon as it was started, with Troy sassily snapping with, “And it’s Troy, not Bolton, Dad!”
Overall, Shrunken Heads Production’s of “High School Musical: The Show!” brought new ideas and a modern perspective on the issues high school students face in a production well-known to its audience. However, some aspects of the play’s place in time and the characterization of its protagonists arguably added more confusion than relatability. Regardless, the show was pushed forward by an excellent and talented ensemble, star-studded antagonists, and occasionally quirky jokes. It will be interesting to see how Shrunken Heads Production will use this experience in the future, and what productions they have planned next.