Uncool 'School'  

January 19, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

"Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" That hoary cliche is never actually uttered in "High School Musical." But the over-the-top yet insincere enthusiasm it has represented since Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were young is key to the appeal of the Disney phenomenon: the 2006 movie (which has been seen by 60 million worldwide), the soundtrack (the most successful album last year, with more than 3.7 million copies sold in the United States) and now the concert.

Yes, folks, to the unbridled joy of preteens -- and the dismay of parents who shelled out more than $65 a ticket for the best seats -- "High School Musical: The Concert" is on a 40-city tour that arrives for a sold-out show tonight at the Allstate Arena.

The live show doesn't recreate the movie onstage, but -- like an "American Idol" tour -- it does feature most of the performers singing the songs, along with a number of other distractions.

If you've so far been lucky enough to escape exposure to the 'tween sensation, let me fill you in. The typically low-quality Disney Channel movie focuses on a teenage couple, Troy (Zac Efron), the captain of the high school basketball team, and Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), the awkward wallflower and brainy geek, who meet on New Year's Eve when they're thrust together at a karaoke bar (a juice bar, no doubt) to sing a portentous and typically saccharine pop tune called "Start of Something New."

In between another dozen similar factory-made ditties, our heroes buck the insidious social stereotyping of peers and parents; flirt with the ideal of true love, and ultimately find their means of self-expression by scoring the lead roles in -- you knew it was coming -- the high school musical. If it all sounds familiar, no surprise: Its creator intended it to.

"As a family, when we'd talk about what we could watch with the kids, it seemed like we always turned to 'The Sound of Music,' 'Grease,' 'Hair' and musicals," executive producer Bill Borden told the TV Web site Worldscreen.com. "You can watch those over and over again. ... So I decided, one day, I've got to do a musical. My inspiration came from Zeffirelli's 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'West Side Story.' "

Unfortunately, the music in "High School Musical" doesn't even rise to the energetic and mildly catchy level of Hilary Duff and Jesse McCartney, much less the innovative brilliance of Leonard Bernstein.

Honestly, the album and the DVD -- which features the movie in both regular and sing-along karaoke versions -- are harmless enough, if cloying to any ears older than 13. But the $8.5 million concert, designed by the same team that brought us the last Rolling Stones tour and complete with colored lights, fog, pyrotechnics, showers of confetti and a huge screen showing clips from the film, is a different story.

For starters, the million-dollar heartthrob is nowhere to be found: Efron is off making the film version of another musical, "Hairspray." In his place is another Disney creation, Drew Seeley, who actually dubbed Efron's voice in the movie, so it hardly matters -- unless you're a 10-year-old with a crush.

The other stars are on board -- Bleu, Hudgens and blonde bombshell Ashley Tisdale (the obnoxious princess "Sharpay") -- and in addition to their renderings of the sub-Broadway show tunes, the 90-minute concert gives them all overly generous solo showcases and interview segments with an M.C. This after yet another Disney pop star in the making, Jordan Pruitt, kicks things off with a 20-minute opening set.

In other words, the message of the concert is the same as every Disney production: Buy, buy, buy! Buy the merchandise from the show: the CD, the DVD, the $30 tour T-shirt and the $10 tour poster. Buy the inevitable spin-off albums by all of the stars (Hudgens already has her own hit with "Come Back to Me"; Bleu is set to release an album in the spring, and Tisdale is no doubt gearing up to make one in between co-starring in Disney's "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody"). And, most of all, buy the message of an idealized, sanitized world that doesn't really exist.

Harsh, but true.

 

REASONS FOR LIVING

'All right, wise guy, you're not big on 'High School Musical.' Are there any rock musicals you do like and would recommend for the kids in our house?" Funny you should ask!

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show"

Yes, I'm serious: It's not nearly as racy as you think you recall from those hazy midnight showings in college. Sure, you may have to explain why that man is wearing women's underwear, but the central message of "Don't dream it, be it" is as inspiring as I can imagine for any 'tween, and the music kicks, from Meat Loaf belting "Hot Patootie (Whatever Happened to Saturday Night)" to "The Time Warp." A true karaoke classic before we ever heard that word.

"Jesus Christ Superstar"

Yes, it's silly, and no, I can't defend the later output of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But their first effort rocked; many of the songs remain insidiously unforgettable (it always slays me when the Pharisees croon, "This Jesus must die!") and, of course, the story has certainly stood the test of time.

"1776"

I'll confess, this one has been a guilty pleasure and the only traditional musical I've ever liked since I first saw the 1972 film in grammar school. Not only was I hooked by tunes such as "Sit Down, John" (that's the Continental Congress to John Adams) and "He Plays the Violin" ("he" being Thomas Jefferson), but it helped me considerably when we got to the Declaration of Independence in sophomore history class.

'HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL -- THE CONCERT'

 7 tonight
 Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont
 Sold out

 

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