Palace Youth Theatre assistant artistic director Nate Sawyer says 100 to 120 students is a good turnout for a typical PYT audition. This year’s High School Musical Jr. saw 140.
It’s a large number, particularly for a summer production. Turnout is sometimes more sparse in June, July or August, when families are out of town.
“It [the play] brought in a whole new crowd of people,” Sawyer said in a phone interview. “There were others who were very upset they couldn’t participate because of [their] summer plans.”
Sawyer will be directing PYT’s rendition of the Disney original movie-turned-play, which showed last weekend and continues this Friday, Aug. 22, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, Aug. 23, at 7 p.m.
In all the times the Palace has produced the play, Sawyer said it’s been well-received by the young actors and the audience members. (The last time it was shown, about five years ago, there were sold-out performances.)
Sawyer has directed the past year’s worth of PYT productions, so he’s seen first-hand the difference in how the kids relate to the plays. They respond more passionately to High School Musical Jr. than, say, Annie because, as middle or high schoolers themselves, they relate to Troy and Gabriella much more than a band of girl orphans in New York City.
“The message is about not just sticking to your own clique. You need to just break out and do whatever you want to do,” said 13-year-old Hudson actor Chris Graham, who played Chad in the production’s first weekend performance. “It was definitely a popular play to audition for — some kids actually dressed up in wildcat costumes from the movie.”
Most kids probably won’t need a plot summary — as Graham said, they grew up watching the film and singing the songs — but for those who need a refresher, High School Musical Jr. is like a PG version of Grease. The play centers around two teens, Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez, who meet while singing karaoke together at a ski lodge during winter break.
They come together again soon after when, coincidentally, Gabriella transfers to East High School. Because of their great singing chemistry at the ski lodge, they consider auditioning for the school play, but at first reject it because Troy is a basketball star, Gabriella a brainiac, and, alas, they belong in different social groups. When they eventually decide to audition and earn callbacks, chaos breaks loose, not least among the theater crowd, jealous of the outsiders’ success, and among their friends, including basketball teammate Chad Danforth and Gabriella’s bookish friend Taylor McKessie.
Sawyer isn’t surprised that, whenever the Palace produces High School Musical Jr., it’s met with rousing response.
“It’s funny. I think High School Musical started the revolution of performance, especially in younger kids. … After it came Glee and more singing shows, like The Voice. It’s also when American Idol became big,” Sawyer said. “I think it definitely brought theater to a wider generation of kids that might not have experienced it otherwise.”
The music is catchy, Sawyer said, but in a contemporary, hip-hop style, much different from traditional youth theater shows. There are two additional songs in this version, and some of the others have been altered for stage. Just the same, most kids came in knowing the music well.
“We grew up watching it. We already knew the story and the characters. It was just a matter of learning how it changed from movie to stage,” Graham said.
This version also contains a couple visual, stylistic changes, courtesy of Sawyer. The costumes will be organized in a color scheme. Jocks will wear red, white and black. Brainiacs will wear blues and greens, and thespians sport pinks and purples. The skaters will dress in yellow, orange and black.
“With the colors, it’s clear which groups they’re in. You can see it onstage when they interact, but you can also see it visually,” Sawyer said. “When they sing ‘All in This Together,’ the most famous song in the show, they all wear the same color. … It’s about kids being themselves. That, in my opinion, is the best message of the show.”