Meg Luesley is entertained by Foot of the Hill Theatre Company’s nostalgic production of High School Musical.
Taking on a production of something so well-loved and drenched in nostalgia is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s both easier to attract an audience (from what I can see the show basically sold out) and to carry them through the show. On the other, you’ll always be competing with the original. Foot of the Hill Theatre Company’s production of High School Musical managed to walk this delicate balance, however, borrowing enough from the original film to be familiar but not derivative. Incorporating both tweaks from the stage production and a few changes of their own (mostly regarding changing characters’ genders), directors Rex Munson and Ellie Fidler have put new twists on a beloved story.
The programme tells the audience that the whole show was put together in two weeks, which is an impressive feat, particularly on the parts of the leads. Keir Mulcahey and Annie Lucas made a convincing Troy and Gabriella, even inciting some cheers from the audience with their characters’ relationship and some skilful harmonising (a step up from autotuned Zac Efron). However, as is only appropriate for the part of the school’s primadonna, Ellie Nixon was a standout as Sharpay, fully committed to her character and commanding the stage whenever she set foot on it; Dylan Hicks (Ryan) could have easily been overshadowed by her, but thankfully made a goofy and charming foil. The duo practically stole every scene they were in, exactly as the Evans twins should.
However, despite strong performances from the leads, the show really shone in the group numbers. The energy of ensemble members (most notably Tola Sokoya) was infectious. With practically no set besides a basketball course taped onto the floor, the spectacle was in the dancing (choreographed by Siobhan Gardiner), and the highlights were the big group dance numbers when the whole stage was filled.
Unfortunately, at many points the show was hindered by its technical aspects, especially concerning microphones – at various times they were echoey, staticky, providing painful feedback or not working at all. Partnered with a band that, while excellent, was incredibly loud, so many lines were lost completely. This didn’t necessarily jeopardise the audience’s understanding of the story, since it’s simple enough, but many of the songs were lost beneath the music (‘Bop to the Top’ was a particularly tragic casualty of this). Similarly, whilst St Mary’s College dining hall made a convincing basketball court, its poor acoustics and incredibly loud floor made it ill-suited to a large scale musical.
As a whole, the production did feel rough around the edges. The use of thrust staging and open doors meant the audience could see right backstage as people waited for their cues, and the show itself both opened its doors and started late, meaning it didn’t finish until past 11pm. These are all small details, but I spoke to several audience members concerned about needing to sit down or getting home so late, which Foot of the Hill Theatre company might wish to take into account for future productions.
However, for all its flaws, High School Musical left its audience beaming. Thirteen years on from its release (!), there’s still enough nostalgia, cheer and pure fun in the show to get the audience clapping, singing and bopping along to the songs, and it’s difficult to criticise when everyone onstage looks like they’re having a fantastic time. It was by no means perfect, but the cast pulled through when it mattered to present a delicious slice of Disney-branded positivity.
High School Musical will be performed at St Mary’s College on Wednesday 26th June at 8:15pm.