Energy level high in TBT’s winning musical

Thunder Bay Theatre can always count on a somewhat older demographic to regularly come and see their shows, but for Wednesday’s opening night performance of “Disney’s High School Musical,” the median age of the audience dropped by multiple decades. Plenty of teens turned out to catch the highly energetic first showing of this Disney channel movie turned stage adaptation.

TBT’s poppy, bobby musical about high school kids putting on a musical seems to be a great way to get younger kids hooked on the magic of live theatre. And the older set will discover plenty to relish as well, including the musicality and polished feel of the show.

It’s another new era at TBT with another new artistic director, and I like what I see. For the second show in a row, new AD Jeffrey Mindock has put up a winner. He’s surrounded himself with a solid production team, and collaboratively they paid attention to all the details. The costumes by Suni Travis are fun and appropriate, there’s some cool lighting effects by Mark Exline and the choreography by Christian Ryan is exuberant.

Music Director Bunny Lyon coaxed the best out of the 22 actors in the show, and while I know she works very hard at the music end of things, she did have a head start with so many good voices right from the get-go.

The set design, again by Exline, fits TBT’s restricted space and speaks high school. Exline is adept not only at designing the overall appearance and function of the set, but he also made sure the space and the set pieces were painted with a deft hand, including the faux hardwood floor and pre-requisite masonry school walls.

The first noticeable aspect about the show, however, is its localized setting. Mindock chose to ground the story at Alpena High School and as such you’ve got AHS basketball jerseys and cheerleading outfits, plus green lockers, green curtains and lots of other clothing pieces sporting the Wildcat logo. It also helps that the opening number is appropriately titled, “Wildcat Cheer.”

One of the best touches though has to be the signature Wildcat roar typically heard at all home Friday night football games. The telltale roar keeps sounding out during school announcements, which are given in highly amusing fashion by actor Corey Keller as Jack. Even Mindock, in his pre-show speech to the audience, employs a green megaphone and a spirited delivery, and he could be seen in the lobby ahead of time manning a booth of AHS momentos straight from the high school’s Campus Closet.

But what’s a show without actors? TBT’s current large-scale core company of professional performers only is in town for the summer, so “High School Musical” is the last of only two productions at which to experience their high talent level.

The two leads of basketball star Troy Bolton and math whiz Gabriella extremely popular characters in the movie version are played by Zach Erhardt and Mikaela Holmes. Both are uniformly strong and appealing. Holmes has a gorgeous voice, (she’s been in the running this summer for the role of Belle in a Broadway touring production of “Beauty and the Beast”), and she’s sweet and vulnerable without being cloying. Erhardt’s got the right combo of masculine team leader and supportive boyfriend torn between living up to the expectations of others and following his own less stereotypical dreams. He also brings a wonderful voice to the mix.

Their foils are mean girl Sharpay (Mattie Jo Cowsert) and her twin brother Ryan (Aidan Cleary), who tends to follow obediently on her heels. There are no big surprise here! cliques at the school, and Sharpay and Ryan fall into the thespian clique. Sharpay believes it’s her birth right to land the lead in the upcoming school musical, a neo-feminist take on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that’s been re-written as “Juliet and Romeo.” These two provide many comical moments, not to mention the good set of pipes on each. They are enjoyable to see and hear in both “What I’ve Been Looking For” and “Bop to the Top.”

Troy also does a thoroughly likable rap-tinged number, “Get’cha Head in the Game,” with his fellow jocks, played by Cameron Jones, Samantha Brooks and Christian Ryan, who as choreographer came up with the neat basketball-based dance moves. As members of the jock clique, these three handily do their part to dissuade Troy from auditioning for a lead part in the school play.

Nickie Hilton and Scott Meier appear as the only adult characters in the show, with Hilton as the eccentric, over-zealous drama teacher and Meier as Coach Bolton, whose single-minded focus is coaching the boy’s basketball team to a championship. Hilton (this is the last chance to catch her up on the TBT stage as she’s leaving for California at the end of the summer) seems to always be cast in roles that fit her considerable talents, and her Ms. Darbus in this show is no exception. She will certainly be missed by theatre audiences.

Likewise, Meier does a good job as the sometimes blustery coach bent on elevating sports above all else. His character also happens to be Troy’s father, which adds another level of pressure to his already conflicted son.

Mariah Purol, Brynna Smith and Allison Kania play the cheerleader clique, and as such, bring a real rah-rah attitude to all that they do. The brainiacs, with their white lab coats and black spectacles, includes Emily Senkowsky, Hannah Matzke, Amber McEachern and Dylan Konarzewski. And the rest of the thespian clique is comprised of Jessica McEachern, Emily Thatcher, Nick Hartman and the show’s bouncy dance captain, Courtney Marshall.

The contagiously enthusiastic show is reminiscent of “Grease,” but with a more squeaky-clean version of teen peer pressure and identity angst. The uplifting, handclapping conclusion brings the expected be-true-to-yourself message, which is not a bad thing for kids of all ages to consider and for adults to reinforce.