High School Musical 3: Senior moments

Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m old and have bad taste, but Disney’s High School Musical 3: Senior Year kept reminding of my favorite bad movie musical of all time: Grease 2.

You’ve got a story that goes nowhere, a primary romantic couple that hits a few road blocks but ends up together, a cap-tossing graduation scene and the must unrealistic school musical of all time (in Grease 2 it involves the wretchedly wonderful production number “Girl for All Seasons”). You’ve also got a leading man in a salvage yard (in Grease 2, Maxwell Caulfield is building the ultimate chick-magnet motorcycle) and a song that echoes one of the worst numbers ever: “Who’s That Guy?” (in HSM3 the line occurs during a paean to prom night called “A Night to Remember,” which also happens to be the name of a movie about the Titanic, but I digress).

Surely, HSM3 is far more accomplished than Grease 2, and the stable of Disney stars, now in their final round of HSM servitude, actually appear to be close to their characters’ age and not 35. Though all those fresh-faced kids should mightily try to avoid playing high school students in their ensuing projects.

I’ll say this about Senior Year — it’s not as good as HSM2, which just about gets the formula perfect, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun than the dreadful, soul-numbing movie version of Mamma Mia!.

Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens are as appealing as ever, though Efron’s charisma pretty much blows pretty Vanessa off the screen. Ashley Tisdale, with her sassy new nose, has fun with her ultra-bitchy character, Sharpay, though on the big screen it becomes quite apparent that Ms. Tisdale is not a great actress, nor does she have a whole lot of comic flair. Lucas Grabeel (right) as Sharpay’s, twin, Ryan, is mostly consigned to reaction shots as Sharpay flounces about, flipping her extensions and making the most of her cutie cute outfits. I’m a little sorry Ryan doesn’t get to fully come out of the closet and take a boy to prom. Instead he takes Kelsi(Olesya Rulin), the “composer” of the school shows. I’m not sure if that means Kelsi is a budding lesbian and the two recognize each other through the golden high school haze or Kelsi is doomed to a life of fag haggery. I’m hoping for the former. For the best analysis of HSM3 as gay metaphor, check out Prince Gomolvilas’ Bamboo Nation report here.

The songs in this final installment, well, they stall. There’s a sameness to them such that when there’s a reprise of “We’re All in This Together,” it’s like a fresh New Mexico breeze. Efron sounds like a boy band standby and Hudgens sounds more than a little electronic, which is strange.

Sharpay and Ryan’s Broadway-size duet, “I Want It All,” is fun, but the best all-around number is Efron’s duet with Corbin Bleu, “The Boys Are Back,” complete with a childhood flashback and an homage to Kevin Bacon in Footloose, the remake of which happens to be a future Efron project. Sure Efron’s got the goods, but Bleu matches him in the charisma department, and of all the HSM stable other than Efron, this is the guy to watch.

The ballads are boring, but because the budget is bigger this time out, we get boring ballads in the rain, in a rotating treehouse and on the Stanford campus. Oddly, many of the production numbers are performed on moving sets that appear to be stage ready — could it be director Kenny Ortega is just making it easier for the inevitable stage productions of HSM3 to replicate its “movie” magic?

The choreography — by Ortega, Chucky Klapow (sorry, credited onscreen as Charles Klapow) and Bonnie Story is actually a lot of fun. There’s a heavy Michael Jackson influence and a whole lot of irresistible energy. Watching the beefed-up cast dance to the lame title song (it took three tries to finally get a song called “High School Musical”?), it made me sad for Ortega — not that he needs my pity, but I lamented the missed opportunity known as Newsies, the early ’90s Disney musical helmed by Ortega that should have been great. If Ortega had only had anything approaching this budget (reported to be measly $13 million but still bigger than the TV versions), he might have made Newsies something more than a wonderfully awful little musical that has spawned gazillions of fans over the years.

This is innocuous movie musical making, and there’s surely a place for that (no one has quite revived the harmless spirit of the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals quite as effectively). But I wanted this final installment, since it already has the attention of the world, to be a little bolder and fold some real life into the fantasy. There was a chance to be great or be fabulously bad — like Grease 2 — but that would have required taking a risk, and this money-minting Disney thoroughbred wasn’t about to do any such thing.

And now, just because I worked up an appetite for it, here’s Michelle Pfeiffer singing “Cool Rider” set to a montage of scenes from, yep, Grease 2.

Ice, ice, baby

Admit it. You’re wondering what it was like.

Cheesy? Silly? Stultifying? Genius?

Yes, yes, not so much and no.

We’re talking, of course, about Disney’s High School Musical: The Ice Tour, which opened Thursday at the Oracle Arena in Oakland and then heads to San Jose’s HP Pavilion.

The easy answer is High School Musical, the phenomenally successful Disney Channel movie musicals, are as good on the ice as they were on the small screen. Given your age bracket, that could mean many things.

The experience of The Ice Tour is just that – it’s an experience. The on-ice choreography, the pyrotechnics, the gee-whiz positivity of the blandly perky pop score are all fine and dandy. But watching the audience – to borrow from Lily Tomlin here – is the real art.

Looking around the arena, you couldn’t help but be moved by the gazillions of kids – young, mostly girls, ages 8 to 11 I’d guess – singing along with every word, waving their red-and-white East High School pennants with the abandon of a junior pep squad. The screams were ratcheted up to Beatles ’64 intensity.

And what’s even funnier, is that a whole lot of the moms (not many dads, though there were an intrepid few) had equally big smiles on their faces and were also singing along in between bites of popcorn and nachos.

The pop-culture phenomenon of High School Musical really is something to see – and hear.

As for the show itself, directed by Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun and choreographed by Chucky Klapow and Cindy Stuart (faithfully following the movie moves created by Klapow, director Kenny Ortega and Bonnie Story), is a fast-moving re-creation of both HSM movies. Act 1 finds Troy meeting Gabriella on New Year’s Eve, their romance and their split alliances – to the school musical, to each other and to Academic Decathlon (her) and the basketball team (him). Act 2 is a summertime fling, with the East High Wildcats working at a luxurious resort and the Paris Hilton-y Sharpay making a move for Troy.

All the songs are squeezed into the nearly two-hour show, and the momentum of the piece cannot be denied. By sheer force of cheerfulness, everyone – even the reluctant adults – has a good time.

Jordan Brauninger and Lane Walker are suitably adorable as Troy and Gabriella, though I must confess I was fonder of Sandy Rucker and Peter Bonard Muck as weirdly intimate brother-sister team Sharpay and Ryan.

The one big improvement over the movies is Troy’s big solo, “Bet On It.’’ In the movie Zac Efron bounces through the ultra-green golf links like a junior Kevin Bacon trying to cut footloose. But on the ice, Brauninger (lip-synching the movie soundtrack, as all the skaters do) gets to show his moves in a much more impressive manner.

I could live another day without hearing “You Are the Music in Me” or “Get’cha Head in the Game” again, but every time I’m exposed to HSM, I react retroactively: my 10-year-old self would have flipped for this squeaky-clean Disney phenom.

Visit the official High School Musical: The Ice Tour here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I gleefully accepted Disney HSM swag including red-framed glasses that blink red lights; a souvneir program that plays “We’re All in This Together” when you open it; red-and-white pompoms; and a sign to cheer for my favorite character (no, I didn’t choose Troy or Gabriella or even Ryan — I picked the one that said CHAD in big, bold letters. All of the swag, except for the sign, has been passed on to fans under the age of 10.

Chucky on ice

So many things are good on ice _ lemonade, oysters, the Sharks _ but High School Musical on Ice? Really?

Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice, sure. But a made-for-TV movie about chipper high schoolers coming to terms with friendship, self-empowerment and sassy dance moves? Hmmm. Sounds like Disney is going to milk the High School Musical franchise — which already includes a phenomenally successful sequel to the original movie, a professional touring stage show and countless community theater productions — for all it’s worth.

High School Musical: The Ice Tour (it’s apparently passe to be On Ice) arrives in the Bay Area next Thursday and continues through Oct. 20 at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, then moves to the HP Pavilion in San Jose Oct. 24 through 28.

To ensure that Troy and Gabriella, Ryan and Sharpay, Chad and all the others retain their youthful exuberance, Disney and ice producer Kenneth Feld approached the original creative team to help make the transition to ice.

Kenny Ortega, who directed and co-choreographed the two HSM movies, recommended they use one of his fellow Emmy-winning co-choreographers: 27-year-old Charles Klapow, who prefers to be called Chucky.

Chucky Klapow was thrilled to get Ortega’s call, but there was only one problem in his mind: He didn’t know how to ice skate.

The ice folks said that wouldn’t be a problem because he could still teach the dance routines and “protect the integrity of the original moves.”

But for Chucky Klapow, not skating was not an option.

“The way I coach is by example,” he says on the phone from Manhattan just before HSM: The Ice Tour opened at Madison Square Garden. “The dancers feed off my energy. I show the move, demonstrate it so they can see how it looks and feels.”

So with the help of his fellow ice choreographers, Klapow learned to skate.

“I was doing an axle in 20 days,” he boasts. “The first one was a really bad, cheated axle, but I’ve been working on it. It’s still not great.”

So for someone who began his dancing career at 12 and has danced for Patti LaBelle, Celine Dion, Salt-N-Pepa and in Austin Powers, how does it feel to move on ice?

“Skating is a rush,” the Los Angeles native says. “It’s addictive. You master one jump and want the next one. It’s a cool feeling.”

Choreography for a movie — with everything directed to the camera — is one thing. Choreographing for an audience on three sides, not to mention the whole ice and skates factor, is quite another.

“What you can do on a floor in shoes you can’t necessarily do on a blade on ice,” Klapow says. “And the ice is so vast with the audience everywhere. You have to turn the choreography out and share the energy. The challenge was to keep each number recognizable and as true to the film as possible, but then cover a huge stage of ice. Each number was like solving a puzzle.”

For this icy HSM, the first movie and all its songs are confined to the first act. Act 2 features all the songs and plot from HSM 2. That’s a lot of show to learn, and Klapow and his cohorts were teaching all of this to three separate casts: two North America tours and one international tour.

“The whole process took about 2 1/2 months,” Klapow says. “We worked with skaters really quickly, but I’m super proud of it. Every time we set a number, it turned out to be better than we thought it would be.”

And here’s an added bonus: Klapow met someone special as a result of this near-arctic adventure.

“I met a girl during the rehearsal process,” Klapow says, and even though he’s on the other end of the phone lines, you can just tell he’s smiling. “Not only did I learn to skate and choreograph for the ice, I met somebody.”

Thinking back to those early days when HSM was just another in-development Disney Channel TV musical, Klapow says he had no idea he was about to become involved in a phenomenon.

“When I heard it was going to be called High School Musical, I thought, `Ugh. No one’s going to watch that!’ ” Klapow recalls. “But making the movie was an amazing experience. We had a ball doing it and knew it was something special. I don’t think any of us expected the level of success we got. I was just so happy I got to work on production numbers with 100 people in them. When was I going to get an experience like that again? It was like an old movie musical. The the second film was even bigger. I’m so lucky — I got to do it twice.”

The kety to the show’s success, Klapow says, is that it strikes a balance between the boys and the girls, sports and drama, sinigng and dancing, skaters and brainiacs and all the rest.

“It’s such a positive message,” Klapow says. “We’re all in this together. It’s all about teamwork, all for one, acceptance of everybody, friendship. That’s why people fall in love with it — it’s all about innocence and fun. It’s totally the `Saved by the Bell’ formula.”

Klapow will likely be involved in High School Musical 3, which is reportedly being readied for the big screen and will begin shooting in January. “I’m talking to Kenny about it,” he says.

“High School Musical: The Ice Tour” runs Thursday through Oct. 20 at the Oracle Arena, I-880 at 66th Avenue, Oakland. Tickets are $18 to $60. Call 510-625-8497, 415-421-8497 or 408-998-8497 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for information. The show moves to HP Pavilion, 525 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose, Oct. 24-28.

And check out Klapow’s Web site at www.chuckyk.com.