OREM — “What time is it? SUMMERTIME!” One of our favorite summer date nights is watching the live musicals at the SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre. On these warm Utah nights, we curl up on the grass, buy some popcorn, and enjoy some lively community theatre while kids run around on the grass, dancing to each song. The experience is sort of like going to Tuacahn, or Shakespeare in the Park, but in a more intimate, social venue and with an amateur vibe. Nevertheless, it is always fun to see what energetic community theatre production has been cooked up for the summer, and we enjoy the low-key, easy nature of it. The latest outdoor production at the SCERA, High School Musical, feels a lot like a real high school musical — for good and for bad.
When teenagers Troy and Gabriella share an intimate karaoke experience over winter vacation, they don’t expect to see each other again. In a very Grease-esque series of events, they wind up together in the same homeroom: drama class! Troy, a basketball player, and Gabriella, a brainiac, fostered their love of music together, but can they fight their social stereotypes and audition for the spring musical? Or, will they be pressured to “Stick to the Status Quo”?
To give the production team credit, the script does not give them much to work with. While based on the iconic Disney Channel movie written by Peter Barsocchini, the stage production by David Simpatico is far cheesier. The enjoyment of the stage version comes from the nostalgic songs by Peter Barsocchini that have been adapted and arranged by Bryan Louiselle. Still, with direction from Shawn Herrera, the cast really does bring beautiful, contagious energy to the stage. Choreography by Daniel Bentley is a highlight of the production, and each cast member embodies the dance moves with their whole heart and lots of excitement. My inner 2000s child soared with excitement during “We’re All in This Together” when the actors oozed pure Disney Channel happiness in all its glory, each turn and clap packed with life and fun.
What holds the show together is not just the choreography and overall energy of the cast, but the technical elements. Lighting design by Emma Bayless is both stunning and smooth, easily shifting the moods of each scene. My favorite aspect is the twinkling lights placed at various parts of the stage, adding to the cinematic, youthful undertones of the production. Cues by stage manager Sherri Holcombe are perfectly timed throughout the evening. Scenic design by Herrera is gorgeous; the entire stage looks like the halls of East High School, complete with brick pillars, detailed signs pointing to various parts of the school, a snack bar, and the iconic grand staircase from the movies. It looks stunningly similar to my brother-in-law’s high school in Heber, which I imagine is very relatable and nostalgic for those who grew up here in Utah. I loved feeling immersed in the school environment with all of its intentional details.
The only technical element that was lacking was the costume design by Kelsey Seaver. All of the various cliques wore exact copies of the same T-shirt, without any additional costume pieces, reading pretty bland on the large stage. I wish their stereotypes had been dramatically emphasized, making the groups’ differences and clashes more clear. Most underwhelming was the costuming for Sharpay. Her outfit reads a bit more like “Utah Mom” than “Teenage Fabulous.” (Also, her hair kept getting in her face, a problem one of the female basketball players had.)
While the lighting and set were impressive, the actors were less engaging. They are clearly talented actors, but they all blended into one another because the performances were so similar. Simply put, I wanted more from each of the characters. Ms. Darbus should be more intense, Sharpay should be more intimidating, Troy and Gabriella should be more of anything than just great singers. When the ensemble is in an intense song, such as “Counting On You,” there should be more than just shifting feet. I would love to see this talented cast dive deeper into each of their characters so that their physicality and character choices do not get lost on such a big stage. Once the cast can “Work This Out,” I truly believe it will take this production from okay to great.
Actors who needed stronger choices included Daniel Cespedes and Abby Fillmore as Troy and Gabriella, respectively. Both actors clearly had singing skills, but their characters lacked personality. I would love to see the actors find ways to help their characters feel more complex and developed. I believed they had a connection and cared about each other, but I would have loved to grow more attached to them due to seeing more of their unique personalities contrasted to the rest of the East High students on stage.
I appreciated that Olivia Keating as Sharpay made distinct choices about her character and clearly committed to them, but I did not feel any power from her on stage. If Keating could find a way to maintain a firm physical presence and to slow down her speech to let each menacing word land, I believe we would find her delightfully more intimidating. I would also love to see Tina Fontana as Ms. Darbus capture some of this status and authority on stage through her voice and physicality. While some of her mannerisms were indeed humorous, especially walking in on Troy and Gabriella during “What I’ve Been Looking For (reprise),” I would love to see that she truly has authority over these students, not just casual relationships.
Examples of actors making brilliant, intentional choices are standouts Lydia Evans as Martha Cox and Iuli Peters as Zeke Baylor. Both immediately shine on stage because of their unique physicality, expressive vocal tones, and strong commitment to character. Evans clearly connects and listens to each of her scene partners, reacting to what they say with distinct characterization and full-out, dramatic dance moves that I absolutely loved. Peters exercises strong comedic timing, physicality, and vocal expressions that are beautifully unique to his character, bashfully kicking his foot and flirting with Sharpay with a charming awkwardness.
In summary, this production of High School Musical is a lot of fun, which is often the main goal of a high school musical. Kids especially will love the exciting music, the contagious energy of the cast, and the dazzling set and lighting design. Once the cast gets more comfortable and throws themselves more into the roles, this production of High School Musical will become “A Night to Remember.” I am excited to see their progress.