Roush Review: Back to School With ‘High School Musical: The Musical’ & ‘Encore!’
In the wonderful world of Disney, now filtered through the new Disney+ subscription service, it seems you never forget your first high school musical. Or High School Musical, for that matter.
Hoping for pop-culture lightning to strike again, the streaming platform revisits one of Disney Channel’s greatest hits, a 2006 kitsch classic that made household names of Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. She’s apparently known as “V. Hudge” to a new generation of theater-camp geeks — who would seem to be the target audience for High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. It’s a very meta, but mostly meh, homage set in the same Utah high school where the original movie was filmed and which seemingly has yet to get over the honor.
“This show will change your lives,” chirps Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders), the klutzy ditz of a new drama teacher who announces it’s finally time for East High to stage its own version of HSM. And so begins a show-within-a-show, with storylines better suited to a Grease reboot and not nearly enough music in the first two episodes.
Perhaps it’s intentional that the new cast members, playing ordinary high schoolers, lack the charisma and vigor of the teen idols they’re aping. But even they deserve a better hook than a triangle between musical-hating Ricky (Joshua Bassett); his ex, Nini (Olivia Rodrigo); and jock E.J. (Matt Cornett), who began dating Nini after meeting at summer camp. When the Musical casting is announced, backstage rivalries are born. It’s like Glee without very much glee.
For a more authentic salute to the high school musical experience, Encore! will have you cheering and possibly dabbing a few tears of sentimental joy. In this engaging and uplifting docuseries, graduates return to their alma maters years later to relive their moments in the spotlight in warhorses like Annie and Beauty and the Beast. The pipes and joints may be creaky, but their spirits run high — and so do feelings, as friendships and relationships are rekindled while memories and dreams, sometimes painful, are shared. And then there’s rehearsal.
“It’s a big cluster of chaos,” laments Marcia Milgrom Dodge, a Tony-nominated director enlisted to whip the 1996 cast of Annie, from Southern California’s Santana High, into shape in only five days. Still, the show must go on, despite significant hurdles of performance insecurity. Another complication: The show’s Daddy Warbucks refuses to shave his nearly bald head. “It makes me look like I have cancer,” says Jeremy, a deputy sheriff who first lost his hair while battling cancer in high school. It’s all worth it as families gather to watch these no-longer-kids strut their stuff. Each episode ends on an emotional, if not professionally musical, high.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Series Premiere, Tuesday, November 12, Disney+
Encore!, Series Premiere, New episodes on Fridays starting November 15, Disney+