‘Disney’s High School Musical’ opens today at Thunder Bay Theatre

Taking a big spectacle, big budget production like the Disney Channel’s wildly popular movie, “High School Musical,” and translating it into a small budget, small stage venue like Thunder Bay Theatre presents an obvious set of challenges, but TBT’s new Artistic Director Jeffrey Mindock and his production team have been more than up to it.

Mindock, Technical Director Mark Exline, Music Director Bunny Lyon and Costume Designer Suni Travis spent part of an afternoon last week explaining the creative and technical process involved in bringing “Disney’s High School Musical” to the TBT stage.

The show opens today and will run Wednesdays to Sundays for the next four weeks.

“This is a movie that everyone knows and knows all the characters,” Mindock said. “You can’t try to recreate the movie. I wanted to pay homage to the movie while adding our own individual stamp.”

For those unfamiliar with “High School Musical,” the show follows the trials and tribulations of math whiz and school newbie Gabriella and college-bound, basketball hero Troy, who meet and fall in love while singing karaoke during winter vacation. The two navigate some of the stereotypical school cliques like the brainiacs, the jocks, the cheerleaders and the thespians, while sending out the underlying message of the importance of being true to yourself.

One individual stamp TBT put on the show was to set the story in the familiar environs of Alpena High School.

“We struggled at first with finding the right school colors,” Mindock said. “Mark and I sat down with Suni, and we all decided to make it an Alpena experience. We changed the rival schools to ones like the Traverse City Trojans and we embraced Northeast Michigan.”

That decision made coming up with appropriate costumes such as basketball jerseys, cheerleading uniforms and other accessories a lot easier, especially since AHS Principal Matt Poli enabled the theatre to use school-issued sports uniforms.

“That’s made it incredibly easier because of the connection to the high school and its Campus Closet,” Travis said. “We had very specific hats we needed. We were even able to get some of the things we needed with the Wildcat logo on it at Walmart and other local places.”

TBT opted to infuse as much green and white into the story as possible.

“We’re grounding the show’s high school in Alpena and changing some of the lines,” Mindock said. “That gives the actors a better idea of where they are coming from. It grounds them in realism but also adds whimsy.”

As technical director, Exline was tasked with pairing down the script’s original 17 locations to a more workable five.

“When you are working with a big budget and a fly space, you can do 17 different locations,” Exline said. “We had to find a way to use our space so that it represented these different locations. It’s really about simplifying so we can communicate the message of the show without drowning it in 1,000 set pieces.”

TBT went with a wide open ground plan, onto which Exline painted an authentic looking hardwood floor worthy of a basketball game or school dance. To that will be added benches, desks and other visuals as needed, thereby allowing the actors to transport the audience to various locations without moving around large painted set pieces.

To make full use of available space and increase the audience experience, actors also will enter or exit from all areas of the theatre, including through the back entrance/exit door and down the aisles.

“This makes it all more relatable and connectable to the audience,” Mindock said.

Lyon once again worked with the cast to pull the best out of individual and collective voices.

“I’m so blessed to have a cast that’s so very talented,” Lyon said. “We work hard, but we all work together to create the sound. It’s really fun putting something like this together and seeing it come to fruition.”

The production is filled with plenty of Disney-esque pop numbers, including several new ones not featured in the original movie version.

TBT’s large summer core company stars in the show, along with a number of community performers. Playing the leads of Troy and Gabriella are Zach Erhardt and Mikaela Holmes. Mattie Jo Cowsert, last seen as one of the two leads in TBT’s “Footloose,” plays their nemesis, drama queen Sharpay. Aidan Cleary fills the role of Ryan, Sharpay’s twin brother and co-hort.

Nickie Hilton plays the eccentric drama teacher, Ms. Darbus, and Scott Meier, the basketball coach, Coach Bolton.

Other core company members featured in “High School Musical” are Cameron Jones as Chad, Emily Senkowsky as Taylor, Christian Ryan as Zeke and Corey Keller as Jack. Rounding out the cast are Hannah Matzke as Martha; Ashley Timmreck at Kelsey; Samantha Brooks as Jock; Allison Kania, Brynna Smith and Mariah Purol as cheerleaders; Courtney Marshall, Jessica McEachern, Emily Thatcher and Nick Hartman as thespians; and Amber McEchern and Dylan Konarzewski as brainiacs.

Behind the scenes, other production team members include Paige Breshears as stage manager, Colin Marshall as assistant stage manager and sound designer, Christian Ryan as choreographer, Nickie Hilton as props mistress, Courtney Marshall as dance captain, Rachel Potts as run crew, Bronwyn Woolman as photographer/videographer and Pat Altman as bassist.