ST. GEORGE — Opening night at St. George Musical Theater had all the excitement of a pep rally before a big game—which should be expected when the cast is belting out the tunes of Disney’s High School Musical.
As anxious fans clamored outside the door waiting to nab a seat in the general admission theater, equally excited cast members sent out an aura of anticipation from behind the black curtains separating this theater-in-the-round from the backstage dressing area.
“The cast is all age appropriate,” Bruce Bennett, CEO of St. George Musical Theater, said while chatting with patrons prior to the show. “So all the high school kids are actually in high school.”
It was a detail that played out as the night unfolded, not only in the energy and disposition of the cast, but in some of the opening night jitters too.
Director Bonnie Reynolds’ debut production with SGMT featured a strong ensemble that more than filled the space. In fact, at times the stage felt like it was literally overflowing with energy and excitement. Especially during the dancing and tumbling passes.
The story itself feels like a mash up of a modern-day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and Grease (only in this case the romance begins during a winter break ski trip instead of, “Summer Lovin’,” on the beach). Back in school, basketball star Troy Bolton (Breckin McDonald) and math and science nerd Gabriella Montez (Hailey Hill) attempt to break out of their cliques by indulging in another passion they both share—musical theater. But as high school’s battle lines are firmly rooted in the tradition of separation and status quo, their maneuvers get the attention of everyone in school.
Coming in hot as the production’s villains, siblings Sharpay and Ryan Evans were played fantastically by Brynlee Lott and Taysom Cummings. Their on-stage chemistry and genuine vocal and dancing skills lent an air of credibility to their place in the high school hierarchy as the team to beat in the drama club. However, it was the Sharpay’s vulnerability and Ryan’s awkward kindness that ultimately made them a pair to remember.
Equally strong on both dancing and singing, Hill’s portrayal of East High School newcomer Gabriella Montez carried a lot of the weight placed on the shoulders of the Gabriella/Troy duo. While co-star McDonald had the swagger and charisma one might expect of the character of Troy Bolton, his vocal chops wavered at times to keep up with Hill’s—though it is certainly something that might even out as these real-life high school students get a little more time in front of a crowd.
Throughout the night, Jack Scott’s (Aisea Naivalu) intercom announcements punctuated the show’s humor with an unparalleled enthusiasm and helped to move the story along. Additionally, the confidence oozing from both Reese Wheeler in the role of basketball star Chad Danforth and Jillian Whitaker as lead brainiac Taylor McKessie was delightful to behold.
Meanwhile, Tessa Alleman is to be commended for her role as Ms. Darbus, holding her own as one of two adults in the cast. Alleman seemed particularly in her element as her character went head-to-head with Coach Bolton (Jared Marsh) in what is likely an age-old battle between high school arts and high school sports.
With such a strong ensemble, it was unfortunate that the microphone balance was a little off, making it difficult to hear some of the solos above the background vocals in songs like, “Stick to the Status Quo.”
However, impervious to the microphone issues, the strength in the production’s choreography (courtesy of Geoff Reynolds) highlighted the diversity in the storyline as well as in the cast’s skills, from the basketball team’s smooth ball handling during, “Get’cha Head in the Game,” to the tender partner dances between leading duo Gabriella and Troy.
For anyone who has been there, high school can be rough. Fortunately, the cast of East High Wildcats make the entire experience enjoyable, reminding audiences everywhere that no matter what, “We’re All In This Together.”