MAGNA — Once again, I was sent out to the Empress Theatre and once again I enjoyed every interaction I had there. The staff and cast were delightful to mingle with, and as hospitable as always. I was sent to review High School Musical Jr., a stage adaptation of the beloved movie. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s time to come out from under that rockI was informed at the door that this wasn’t a regular production, it was the offspring of the Children’s Summer Theatre program, all cast members were between 12-18 years old, and the majority of them had never done any live theatre before. Plus, I am reviewing on opening night, and as any of you amateur theatre performers know, opening night is can present a lot of issues you never realized you had until an audience is sitting in front of you.
My immediate response to the opening number was “These kids need at least two more weeks of rehearsal.” Their energy was low, and some of the kids looked bored. The majority of them were looking to the stronger dancers to remember their choreography. The harmonies were off, as well. I’m chalking all that up to “Opening Night Jitters.” The audio didn’t seem to be working, because I couldn’t hear anything that was said. I would also encourage the young actors to work on their diction. Slow down! We’re here to see you! Don’t rush through your lines, we’re not going anywhere!
The performances of our leads were sometimes good, but often hit-and-miss. Leading the cast was Dylan Jones (“Troy Bolton”) and Katie Asper (“Gabriella Montez”). Miss Asper had a strong voice, as well as good presence. Her chemistry with Mr. Jones was non-existent, however, and perhaps that could be developed. The dynamic duo of Cheryl Cripps and Skylar Bluemel (“Sharpay and Ryan Evans”) were by far the most entertaining, both visually and vocally. They knew their lines, lyrics, moves, everything. Miss Cripps has a presence reminiscent of a young Bernadette Peters. She and Mr. Bluemel stole the show at every turn, and in fact, were more enjoyable during some scenes than their big-screen counterparts. Highly accessible and fun.
Cast as a sidekick, Shannon Jones (“Taylor McKessie”) was one of the strongest cast members, and completely under-utilized. Her delivery was spot-on and her characterization left nothing to be desired. Jones’s voice filled the room from the floorboards to the rafters. Note to The Empress: Use her more! Rounding out the cast with noteworthy performances were Hayden Wright (“Jack Scott”) and Kerrigan Nichols (“Ms. Darbus”). One cast member caught my attention in particular. His dancing, energy, vocals, expressions, etc were all amazing. I found myself watching him during many numbers, because he was truly the most interesting thing on-stage. So, Roy Nichols (“Basketball Player #69”), you did great. Keep it up!
High School Musical Jr. is neither the beloved movie, nor professional theatre. Director Jay Windley said it best, “High School Musical isn’t meant to be dissected in the ivy-halls of academia. It’s just meant to be enjoyed in the spirit we give it: with much mirth and the tapping of toes”. Enjoy it for what it is. Give this cast another night or two of performing in front of an audience, and I would imagine this production will come together nicely. I had a difficult time reviewing youth theatre, because I would hate anything I write to discourage anyone from pursuing their artistic talents. Remember guys, everyone starts somewhere. Keep working, keep trying, keep having fun!