Review: `Stephen Schwartz and Friends’

Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can …

Friday night at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz diverged from his set list after opening his show, Stephen Schwartz and Friends, with the sweet “Chanson” from his 1976 show The Baker’s Wife.

Sitting at the grand piano, the diminutive Schwartz, 60, warned the sound and lighting crew that he was going rogue. Inspired by the election of Barack Obama and heartened by watching the president-elect’s first press conference that afternoon, he shuffled aside the song “Reluctant Pilgrim” so he could sing “Beautiful City,” a paean to hope from his 1973 hit Godspell.

The expertly chosen, inspirational song, which echoes Obama’s rally cry of “Yes we can!” was slightly out of Schwartz’s range, but when the spirit moves you, notes hardly matter.

In the 90-minute Schwartz showcase, which closes out Broadway by the Bay’s 43rd season (and continues with shows at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 8, and at 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9), the veteran composer shared the spotlight with three dynamically different singers: Tony-winner Debbie Gravitte, cabaret and Broadway vet Liz Callaway, and award-winning cabaret crooner Scott Coulter.

With Schwartz at the piano, each of the singers had a defining moment. For Gravitte, it was playing the waitress Dolores from Schwartz’s adaptation of the recently departed Studs Terkel’s Working, who elevates the level of service in “It’s an Art.”

For Callaway, there were two great moments: in the sadly sweet “Lion Tamer” (from 1974’s The Magic Show) and her bravura version of “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife, which is a song she has been singing for years and sings just about better than anybody else. She also joined forces with Coulter on the “love medley” with Callaway taking the lead on “As Long As You’re Mine” from Wicked and Coulter on “In Whatever Time We Have” from Children of Eden.

For Coulter, who’s more of a pop/soul singer than a Broadway belter, the best number was the achingly romantic “So Close” from last year’s Disney film Enchanted (lyrics by Schwartz, music by Alan Menken). But Coulter also soared on the medley of “Just Around the Riverbend,” another Menken-Schwartz Disney collaboration, this one from Pocahontas, with “Corner of the Sky” from the 1972 smash Pippin.

In addition to singing some heartfelt solos – “Forgiveness’ Embrace” from his 2002 album Uncharted Territories and “For Good,” the emotional finale of Wicked – Schwartz offered a master class in songwriting for musicals by taking us through the evolution of “The Wizard and I,” the young witch’s cris de coeur from Wicked.

The original song for Elphaba to declare her dreams and ambitions was called “Making Good,” and though he tried several versions of the song, it just wasn’t working. So, with help from book writer Winnie Holzman, input from his director son Scott Schwartz and with inspiration from A Chorus Line (give them what they want but make them wait so they’re more grateful), he eventually landed on the show-stopping belter that helped make Wicked such a phenomenal success.

In a giant medley of hits, Schwartz and his singing friends were able to knock out “Day by Day,” “Magic to Do” as well as his Oscar-winners, “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas and “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt.

Another hopeful song, “Someday” from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, ended the show, but Schwartz’s impromptu burst of light from earlier in the show was still ringing through the hall:

When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up, bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build

A beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But finally a city of man.

Click here to read an interview I did with Schwartz for Theatre Bay Area magazine.

FOR MORE INFOMRATION:

Stephen Schwartz and Friends is at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 8, and at 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$45. Call 650-579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

Here’s the song “Beautiful City” from the 1973 movie version of Godspell (for which the song was written):

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.

`Rocky Horror’ time warps again, Living Word lives, Mickey skates

It’s a Bay Area autumn weekend. The weather is gorgeous and you should be out in the world enjoying various entertainments. And entertainments are never more varied than they are in the Bay Area.

HORRORS! IT’S ROCKY!

Just in time for revving up Halloween spirits, Ray of Light Theatre opens The Rocky Horror Show tonight (Friday, Oct. 17) at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. The five-week run continues through Nov. 15.

Jef Valentine plays Dr. Frank ‘n Furter, the man making a man (Scott Gessford) on the slab in the lab. The lovebirds from Denton, Brad and Janet, are played by Jason Hoover and Rebecca Pingree respectively. Frank’s team of Columbia, Riff Raff and Magenta are played by Sarah Kathleen Farrell, Manny Caneri and Jessica Coker.

Cate Chaplin directs and choreographs this time-warping, gender-bending, rocking and rolling musical.

Tickets are $15-$35. Visit www.rockysf.com for information.

LIVING WORD WAGES `WAR’

The Living Word, the resident theater company of Youth Speaks, launches the seventh annual Living Word Festival today in San Francisco and Oakland.

The 10-day festival is curated by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and features commissioned work, live music , workshops, lectures, literary panels and educational sessions.

The centerpiece of the festival is the premiere of War Peace: The One Drop Rule, a youth-driven hip-hop theater piece that imagines the Bay Area as a potential war zone in a time of protracted drought. Joseph directs the piece, which is written and performed by Chinaka Hodge, Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs and Nico Cary. The piece features a score by SF Jazz Youth All-Stars, and Emmy-winning choreographer and tapper Jason Samuels-Smith choreographs. The show runs Oct. 23 and 24 at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco.

Today’s kick-off events include a free lunchtime concert at Yerba Buena Gardens (760 Howard St.) featuring Goapele and Kev Choice Ensemble at 12:30 p.m. Also today at the Oakland Museum (1000 Oak St.) is a literary panel featuring Adam Mansbach and Jeff Chang and Urban Word NYC reading from new work and having a conversation on the topic of “race is fiction.” The event is at 7 p.m.

There are many other events. For a full schedule visit www.youthspeaks.org.

BUZZ ON ICE

And now for something completely different: this will neither save the world nor will it engage your mind. But it could be an awful lot of fun (especially for the younger audience members). The latest Disney on Ice production, 100 Years of Magic, continues at the Oakland Oracle Arena through Saturday, Oct. 18.

More than 60 Disney characters from 18 movies mingle on the ice, which means Mickey and Minnie will be doing Hamill camels with Buzz Lightyear, Nemo and those ever-popular Disney princesses. Tickets are $16-$65. Call 415-421-8497 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for info. When the Disney spectacular leaves Oakland, it heads to the HP Pavilion in San Jose from Oct. 22-26.

Disney hatches a `High School Musical’ flop

The Walt Disney Company never has handled success very well. Surprisingly, abundance of imagination can lead to a hit, then absence of imagination can kill it dead.

Look no further than the “High School Musical” franchise. What started out as a cheap little TV movie one-off has turned into a pop culture behemoth, spawning a hugely popular made-for-TV sequel, an ice show, a touring stage version, a gazillion youth stage productions, a soon-to-be-released threequel on the big screen…and now one of the worst reality TV shows imaginable.

Musical theater actually made some reality TV inroads — as annoying as they might have been — with MTV’s “Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods,” which actually did re-cast the lead in a floundering Broadway show and pumped up the box office and the youth popularity factor.

As if Disney’s “HSM” franchise needed any more attention, Disney-owned ABC launched a summer reality series called “High School Musical: Get in the Picture.” The idea was that talent scouts would scour the nation from coast to coast (Alaska and Hawaii included) and pick a dozen young performers (not all teens, but all teen-ish), many pulled from high school drama programs, to humiliate and eliminate week to week. Nick Lachey hosts, and he wanders in from time to time like the amiable guy from down the street who hopes someone will give him a beer.

And the prize? Well, that’s a good question. It’s not money (oops, goodbye ratings). It’s not exactly fame (hello ratings basement). You have to pay attention to even figure out what the prize is: appearing in the closing credits of High School Musical 3. What? Oh, and they might get a recording contract with Disney — as the legal experts put it, you win a “talent hold.”

I’ve been watching, hoping there was something theatrically blog-worthy about the show, but it’s a waste of time. I feel sorry for these kids, many of whom are quite talented. Clearly ABC-Disney has spent a load of money on this thing, but try as they might to drum up drama and cat fights and romantic hook-ups, it all just fizzles.

The only redeeming part of the show is the performances by the kids. Though given horrible coaching, lame storylines and terrible blocking by their “expert coaches,” the young performers do well. The show is a huge cheat (what a surprise) because we supposedly see the kids sitting in empty rooms “rehearsing” with each other, then when it comes time for the performance, they’re moving around a fully built-out set, having blocked every movement and spent time singing along with the pre-recorded music. Clearly we never see any of the real rehearsal.

And the songs. Ick. Sometimes the producers are smart and choose Ben Folds or Jason Mraz. In the last episode, “Connect,” here’s the rundown: “I Don’t Wanna Be” (Gavin DeGraw), “Austin” (Blake Shelton), “Boston” (Augustana), “Bleeding Love” (Leona Lewis) and “One Year Six Months” (Yellowcard).

Then, after the kids perform, the coaches basically rip them apart — not to their faces but to the camera. At the end of the episode (the next one is tonight, Monday, Aug. 18), two kids are relegated to “the chorus.” That means they stay on at this prestigious school of fake TV arts, but they don’t get to work with the really talented kids. The whole point is supposed to be that winning is only the BEST part — the real humiliation comes in small increments throughout the journey.

Sticking talented kids in a lame reality series nominally tied to a Disney franchise really is a new low for reality TV and for Disney, a company that should know better.

Visit the official Web site, watch full episodes and behind-the-scenes clips and see the horror for yourself at: abc.go.com/primetime/highschoolmusical

Here’s my favorite contestant, crazy Bailey:

Robots in love: WALL-E meets `Dolly’

Not only is Pixar’s WALL-E an extraordinary movie – it’s also, in its strange way, a paean to musical theater.

You just don’t head into a computer-animated film set in the 2100s to feature tunes by the great Jerry Herman, but that’s exactly what you get. WALL-E is about a soulful little robot, one of the last moving creatures on Earth (save for his faithful and resilient cockroach friend), whose duty is to compact the mounds of garbage humans left on the planet into stackable little cubes.

How WALL-E the robot got his soul is left for us to ponder, but this adorable little guy – a cross between E.T., the robot from Short Circuit and a little bit of V.I.N.C.E.N.T from Disney’s The Black Hole – is fascinated by the detritus of humanity. When he comes across items that intrigue him, he throws them into a little cooler and takes them home to the Dumpster he lives in (and has festooned with Christmas lights). One of his favorite items is an old VHS tape copy of the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau. Using an old VCR, an iPod and some sort of magnifying lens, WALL-E watches two scenes over and over again: “Before the Parade Passes By” with Michael Crawford as Cornelius Hackl strutting down the street and the ballad “It Only Takes a Moment” with Crawford crooning sweetly with Marianne McAndrew as Irene Molloy.

There’s no Streisand or Matthau in sight (which is probably for the best – Hello, Dolly!, though directed by Gene Kelly, is not a great movie musical). Rather, WALL-E is attracted to the high stepping of “Sunday Clothes” and the song’s naively romantic message about joining the human race to discover wonderful things and the heart-fluttering, hand-holding romance of “It Only Takes a Moment.” The fact that the movie and the original 1964 Broadway musical are based on a Thornton Wilder play (The Matchmaker) all play into the movie’s core message about the vital importance of connection and consciousness.

WALL-E director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) understands the potent romance of musical theater – the same thing that people who hate musicals deride as silly and unrealistic. In a post-apocalyptic setting, Herman’s sweet music represents an idealistic side of humanity not visible for all the junk and rubble. That’s what little WALL-E responds to – he wants to dance and be in love like Cornelius Hackl.

There’s a scene of WALL-E trying to dance with a hubcap for a hat that is priceless. But that’s just a prelude to the robot’s actual chance to fall in love with EVE, a slick droid sent down from the mother ship (where all the too-fat humans are carried on floating chairs, eyes glued to the screens in front of their faces). Neither of the ‘bots really speaks, so the true expression of their feelings (again, why these robots have developed feelings is mysterious, but intriguing) is by touching, or holding hands, just like Irene and Cornelius do in Hello, Dolly!

Is it corny? Yes. Is it effective? Undeniably.

Stanton comes by his affection for musical theater naturally. Apparently he was in a high school production of Hello, Dolly! See what we risk losing when we cut arts programs from our schools?

And Herman, whose music is so integral to one of the best movies of the year (animated or otherwise), is getting the kind of exposure he deserves. He told the Associated Press: “I’m still blown away by the fact that two songs of mine that are close to 50 years old have been used as the underpinning of the movie.”

Herman sold Pixar the rights to use the songs, but he was unaware of just how they’d be used in the final product. He said the movie brought tears to his eyes. He told the Hartford Courant: “It really blew me away. You’re talking to someone still in a haze. I couldn’t believe how beautifully the songs expressed the entire intent of the film.”

Now it’s time for those geniuses at Pixar, who haven’t made a bad movie yet, to create a full-bore musical of their very own. Maybe they’ll get Jerry Herman to help them out.

Here are clips of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” from the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly!:

Ramping up to the Tony Awards

This Sunday, the Tony Awards will be handed out.
Here’s what you need to know (and get busy organizing your Tony party — we’ve got to get those dismal ratings out of the basement so CBS will continue broadcasting the darn things).

For the first time, there will be pre-ceremony Tony Concert chock full of juicy musical numbers from all the nominated shows. In the Bay Area the concert will be at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 15 on KPIX-TV. Mario Lopez (currently playing Zach in A Chorus Line) hosts, and we’ll see numbers from 10 musicals: A Catered Affair, Cry-Baby, Grease, Gypsy, In The Heights, Passing Strange, South Pacific, Sunday in the Park with George, The Little Mermaid and Xanadu—on stage at the Allen Room at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, with its spectacular, floor-to-ceiling views of Central Park South visible to viewers of the telecast.

Nominees who perform on the program include Laura Benanti (Gypsy), Daniel Breaker and Stew (Passing Strange), Kerry Butler (Xanadu), Daniel Evans (Sunday in the Park with George), Faith Prince (A Catered Affair) and Loretta Ables Sayre (South Pacific).

“We’ve tried very hard not to cannibalize anything that will be on the actual Tony telecast, but just to whet people’s appetites for June 15,” says The Broadway League’s Jan Friedlander Svendsen, who is an executive producer of the special. “We purposely didn’t want this in costume, we didn’t want big production numbers. We wanted it to feel very intimate. And we wanted to have those up-close-and-personal profiles.”

Actor nominees who are interviewed during the pre-Tony telecast include Laurence Fishburne, who talks about his role as a Supreme Court justice in Thurgood, and Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, who reveal a touching story from the casting of their revival of Macbeth. Steppenwolf Theatre Company members Laurie Metcalf (November) and Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed from the Best Play nominee August: Osage County celebrate the success of Steppenwolf-ers on Broadway this season—the roster also includes Martha Plimpton and Kevin Anderson—who all told represent six different Broadway shows.

“One of the issues with the Tonys is, often times, not all of our nominees are as well known as, say, Oscar nominees,” says Svendsen. “It’s great to let audiences be exposed to some of those who aren’t as well known. It’s kind of like the Olympics. Many of those athletes aren’t as famous, and one of my favorite parts of watching the Games is getting to know those athletes from a human interest side. Then I have an emotional connection with them and a more rooting interest in who’s going to win.”

The Awards, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg (thank God someone on “The View” cares about theater since Rosie O’Donnell’s departure) begin at 8 p.m. on TV, but watching the tape delay is so retro. Why not tune into the live Webcast? Past Tony winners Michael Cerveris and Julie White host. Log on to www.tonyawards.com for all the details.

On the broadcast, we’ll get musical numbers from all four of the Best Musical nominees (Cry-Baby, In The Heights, Passing Strange and Xanadu) and the four Best Musical Revival nominees (Grease, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific).

Also represented will be three other new Broadway musicals: A Catered Affair, The Little Mermaid and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. And just for good measure, Rent and The Lion King will also make appearances.

Video memories from past Tony winners, clips from nominated shows and a whole lot more await you at www.tonyawards.com, your one-stop shop for Tony Award information.

To whet your appetite, here’s Passing Strange on “The View.”

Tours, tours everywhere

We still don’t know what’s in store for the new SHN/Best of Broadway season (announcement to be made soon). But news out of New York is that there are all kinds of tours heading out on the road that may or may not be coming San Francisco way.

One of those tours is Disney’s Mary Poppins. And the news there is that original Broadway stars Ashley Brown (Mary) and Gavin Lee (Bert the chimney sweep — also from the London cast) will head out on tour with the show. How rare it is to get the original Broadway stars (though these aren’t exactly mega-watt stars) to hit the road. There’s no San Francisco date, but Mary Poppins does have a date at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, so at least it will be within shouting distance.

Also heading out on tour is Curtains, the final Kander and Ebb musical (with an assist from Rupert Holmes after Ebb died). This is the theater-loving whodunit that earned David Hyde Pierce his best actor Tony Award. The Broadway production closes next month and heads out on tour in the Fall of ’09., which begs the question: will anyone remember the show by then?

Finally, this isn’t really a tour, but it may be coming to a town near you.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent is finally closing after 12 years on Sept. 7, and now a new business venture from Sony Pictures Releasing called The Hot Ticket, will film the final performance and broadcast it to movie theaters around the country (much like what the Metropolitan Opera is doing, though this sounds like it won’t be live, which is a bummer).

Screening dates in the U.S. and in Canada have yet to be announced, although Hot Ticket presentations will be shown in strictly limited engagements in 2K and 4K digital theatres.

In a statement Sony Pictures Releasing president Roy Bruer said, “Going to your favorite theater doesn’t mean just going to the movies anymore. Audiences everywhere enjoy sharing special events with their friends and family in public places – it’s just not the same at home. Our mandate will be to identify the one-of-a-kind and sold-out events that people around the country most want to see and we will work to present them to audiences everywhere. With the very best in special event programming and state-of-the-art digital projection and sound in theaters, The Hot Ticket will offer the kind of unparalleled, access that will make these events memorable viewing experiences.”

You can sign up for updates at http://the-hot-ticket.com.

Arielle Jacobs: From Half Moon Bay to `High School Musical’


Arielle Jacobs is Gabriella Montez and John Jeffrey Martin is Troy Bolton in the touring production of Disney’s High School Musical coming to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Growing up in Half Moon Bay, Arielle Jacobs wanted to be a pop singer – the next Mariah or Whitney. She’s not there yet, but she did manage to snag a leading role in one of the hottest properties of the 21st century.

Jacobs is starring as Gabriella Montez. If you’re a tween (around the ages of 9 to 12), that name is enough to elicit squeals of delight. For those of you a little out of that demographic, Gabriella Montez is one half of “Troy and Gabriella,” the jock and the brain, the Romeo and Juliet if you will, of Disney’s cultural phenomenon known as High School Musical.

HSM, as it’s known in cyberspace, was an original musical made for the Disney Channel. No one quite expected the level of popularity it found. The TV movie sequel, aptly titled High School Musical 2, became the most-watched TV program ever on cable.

There’s an entire HSM empire as only Disney could create it replete with every product imaginable, burgeoning pop careers for all the movie’s young stars (Zac Efron, who plays Troy in the movies, even has potential as a breakout movie star after his star turn in last summer’s Hairspray movie) and even a touring ice show (which played the Bay Area last year).

Jacobs’ take on Gabriella can be seen beginning April 15 at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre when the touring stage production of High School Musical opens for a two-week run as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season.

On the phone from a tour stop in Des Moines, Iowa, the chipper Jacobs, 24, says she and her family lived in Half Moon Bay until she was 14, when the Jacobs clan moved to New Jersey.

But Jacobs has fond memories of our little coastal hamlet. “I remember the pumpkin festival, of course,” she says. “To this day I’m obsessed with pumpkins. At one of our tour stops, we went to a glass-blowing factory, and I blew a glass pumpkin.”

Jacobs also recalls clam chowder at Barbara’s Fish Wrap as “the best in the whole world” and remembers riding horses on the beach and through the eucalyptus forest.

“That smell still reminds me of the beach there,” she says. “And you can’t beat those sunsets.”

As a kid, Jacobs was truly serious about being a singer. She took voice with Teddi Lightfoot in San Francisco, and she and her brother, Adam, joined a group called Razzle Dazzle Kids and did little cabaret and Christmas shows around the Bay. One year she was Raggedy-Ann then worked her way up to Mrs. Claus.

She also studied music at the San Francisco Conservatory, and though guided toward classical music, she fell in love with show music.

“I really liked performing and communicating story through song,” she says. “I started to lean in the musical theater direction, and my parents were really supportive, and I have to tell you, I was famous for starting something and getting bored half-way through. I started playing soccer because my brother played soccer. My parents took me to all the practices and bought the equipment. I was 7 or so. I went to the first game and quite at half-time.”

Luckily her interest in theater remained constant. And so did her brother’s. Apparently the Jacobs family ate show-tune Wheaties for breakfast. The two Jacobs siblings made their professional theater debuts in 1994 in TheatreWorks’ Honor Song for Crazy Horse. Adam was Little Hawk and Arielle was Blue Swan. Jump ahead a few years, and while Arielle tours the country in High School Musical, her brother recently finished a gig on Broadway in Les Miserables.

“My parents don’t know quite what they did, but they’re really proud of us,” Jacobs says.

Even before there was a stage version of HSM, Jacobs says she was alerted to the movie because friends and casting directors kept telling her she looked like the original Gabriella (played by Vanessa Hudgens). So when auditions rolled around, Jacobs felt primed.

“I could relate to Gabriella,” Jacobs says. “I didn’t just look like her, I am a lot like her.”

Being on the inside of the HSM phenomenon, Jacobs says she can understand why the show has become such a hit. “The story is very universal,” she says. “It’s very much a model for kids to show them what high school is going to be like and how it’s possible to pursue different things and follow your dreams and get the support of friends, family and teachers.”

Keen HSM observers will notice differences between the TV and stage versions. For instance, onstage there’s a new narrator character, Jack Scott, the school announcer. There are also some new songs – “Cellular Fusion” recalls “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie as the students of East High blaze up their cell phones spreading rumors about Troy and Gabriella and the school talent show – and some new complexity in the relationships, most notably between brother and sister Ryan and Sharpay. Drama teacher Ms. Darbus and basketball coach Bolton also have a new level of adult interaction.

Touring to cities large and small has been a wearying but ultimately satisfying experience for Jacobs, who also paints and takes photos. When she’s done with the tour, she’s heading to Brooklyn, where she just bought an apartment. Her next goal: to star in a Broadway show, of course. But there are other things to do first.

“I’m going on an artist’s retreat,” she says. “I’m going to paint for four days during a break in the tour. I’m also hoping to write some music. I wrote a children’s book and want to get that published as well.”

As if she weren’t busy enough touring and maintaining an official backstage blog (highschoolmusicalblog.com), she also has her own Web site (www.ariellejacobs.com) and an environmental site called www.helphealtheearth.com, which opens with a photo of Jacobs literally hugging a tree.

“I like to direct a lot of the HSM fans to that site,” she says. “It’s all about helping the environment and appreciating nature. It’s really hard on the road to find people who care about recycling. I’m trying not to get depressed too much that people don’t seem to care.”

Spoken like a true Half Moon Bay kid.

High School Musical runs April 15-27 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $23-$85. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com or www.ticketmaster.com for information.

Tom Schumacher: From Broadway to bookseller

In his highly enjoyable book How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theater (Disney Editions, $19.95), Thomas Schumacher recounts, in no particular order, all the jobs he’s had in his life, from childhood in San Mateo to the top of the heap as president of Disney Theatrical Productions.

The list is as follows: “shoe salesman, costume dyer, actor, gift wrapper, director, bus boy, production assistant, kitchen worker, box-office treasurer, custodian, film executive, driver, teacher, puppeteer, movie producer, playground leader, stage carpenter, sound operator, sandwich maker, stage manager, personal assistant to a famous actress and, most recently, Broadway producer,” he writes.

Whew.

“I want kids to see that you can end up doing a lot of different things before you end up doing what you always dreamed you’d be doing,” Schumacher says over a cup of tea at the Four Seasons in San Francisco.

He’s back in the Bay Area — he left about 30 years ago — to promote his book, which came out last fall and has already sold out its first printing.

The night before, he was in San Jose for an event at Children’s Musical Theatre, where he talked to a group of 200 local young performers whose questions, he says, were “outstanding.”

The showman in Schumacher, 50, also came out during the event. He brought a trunk of props from various Disney shows — a funny wig from Mary Poppins (made, as he told the kids, from “fur off a yak’s butt,” which you can bet got a laugh), a baby doll from Tarzan that “leaked” water on a volunteer from the audience, and a shattering vase from Poppins.

While in town, Schumacher was also on Ronn Owens’ KGO radio show. He was supposed to do 10 minutes and ended up staying for an hour because people kept calling and asking questions — mainly about family members who wanted to work in the theater.

“It was amazing all the people who called,” Schumacher says. “You’d never find people calling to talk about theater like that in L.A.”

One of the callers was an old friend who appears in Schumacher’s book. There’s a photo of a young Tommy Schumacher doing the splits in a Peninsula Civic Light Opera production of Hello, Dolly! (he was Barnaby Tucker), and Barbara Squire, the actress who played Dolly, also in the photo, called to say hello.

Similarly, later that night at the book signing, the intimate group — maybe two dozen people — included many of Schumacher’s friends, family members and teachers.

Several of those teachers receive shout-outs in the book: “Teachers have immeasurably enriched my life,” Schumacher writes. “And there is no one I’m more grateful for every time I enter a theater than the wonderful people who were and are my teachers, whether in school, in life or in theater.”

He specifically mentions three from San Mateo: Marian Haworth, who taught him about technical theater at age 14; Roy Casstevens, who taught him about directing at 15 (“and not a day goes by that I don’t use some aspect of what I learned from him”); and local choreography legend Berle Davis (“everything I know about discipline, practice and respect in theater goes back to Berle”). A fourth teacher, John Cauble, set Schumacher on a producing track at the University of California, Los Angeles.

After all he’s accomplished in his career, Schumacher finally got around to writing a book, the kind of book, he says, he would have been crazy about when he was a theater-hungry kid.

Indeed, the book is a trove of theatrical information. Schumacher illuminates every aspect of the theater, onstage (actors), backstage (designers, crew) and offstage (publicists, house managers) using examples from Disney shows including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Tarzan, Mary Poppins and the latest Broadway hit, The Little Mermaid.

Soon after the book hit the shelves, Schumacher was warned by friends that the primary audience would be MAGU, i.e., “maiden aunts and gay uncles.”
But kids — and plenty of adults — are eating up the book.

One of Schumacher’s friends, the great lighting designer Natasha Katz (whom Schumacher profiles in the book), admitted that, though she has worked in the theater for a long time, there were things she learned from the book.

“That has happened more than once,” Schumacher says. “Theater professionals and people who think they know all about theater are afraid to admit that there are things they don’t know. I’ve been told there’s a secret audience for the book of theater people filling in their knowledge gaps.”

Now that Little Mermaid is up and running (after an opening delayed by the stagehands’ strike), Schumacher is turning his attention to other Disney Theatrical projects.

Upcoming is a reading of The Man in the Ceiling, a new musical by composer Andrew Lippa and author Jules Feiffer (based on his book of the same name). Also in development is a show based on the book Peter and the Starcatchers by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry, which is sort of a prequel to Peter Pan.

“Both of these shows are small shows,” Schumacher says. That is a decided to contrast to the typical Disney spectacular such as the glitzy Mermaid.

Before either of those shows has completed its long journey to opening night, Schumacher will be hopping the globe as he and director Julie Taymor figure out how to make The Lion King both larger and smaller to fit into various international venues.

He’ll have to decide what’s next for Mermaid _ London or Japan? _ and, along with co-producer Cameron Mackintosh, launch the Mary Poppins UK tour and, eventually, the North American tour, and retool Tarzan for Hamburg.

“I love, love, love what I do,” Schumacher says. “It’s agony rarely and joyful mostly.”
There will be another book, he says, whenever he and collaborator Jeff Kurti can get around to it. There’s no definite plan, but the book will likely offer another glimpse into the theater world.
Until then, Schumacher will continue to flog How Does the Show Go On?

“I’m like the Gideons with this book,” Schumacher has joked more than once. “I want one in every house.”

Stage presents: A theater gift guide

So many fine gift ideas, so little space. Let’s get started with some great theater books.

In the realm of books about theater, this year’s standout comes from San Mateo native Thomas Schumacher, who also happens to be the president of Disney Theatrical, the producer of such hits as The Lion King and Mary Poppins. Schumacher’s How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theater (Disney Editions, $19.95) is geared toward the young theatergoer (ages 9 to 12), but it’s a hugely entertaining look at the entire theatrical picture, from the beginning of a show to the most intricate details of daily production.

The Bay Area can’t get enough of the musical Jersey Boys. For the most avid fans, there is, of course, a coffee-table book. Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons (Broadway, $40) contains the show’s libretto, lots of photos and a thorough guide to the real Four Seasons and their Broadway counterparts.

You think you know everything about The Sound of Music? Think again. Author Laurence Maslon has assembled the ultimate look behind the scenes of the world’s most beloved movie musical. The Sound of Music Companion (Fireside, $40) covers every aspect of the show, right up to the British reality TV show that allowed viewers to vote on the actress who wound up playing Maria on London’s West End.

The hottest show on Broadway is the multi-Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening. Fans already have memorized the great cast album, so give them Spring Awakening (Theatre Communications Group, $13.95), the libretto (by Steven Sater) and a new adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s original play by novelist Jonathan Franzen (Faber and Faber, $11.70). Franzen hates the musical, by the way, so it’s interesting to see how the play and the musical diverge.

DVDs
This was the year of the movie musical — or maybe I should say the good movie musical. If your gift recipient loves musicals, make sure he or she has Hairspray (New Line Home Entertainment, $34.98 for two-disc version, $28.98 for single-disc), the joyous movie version of the Broadway hit; Once (20th Century Fox, $29.99), a fascinating and musically rich love story about an Irish street musician and an interesting woman he meets by chance; Colma: The Musical (Lionsgate, $27.98), a locally grown musical with catchy tunes and a better-than-average cast of characters. The best of the big-ticket DVD items this year is The Noel Coward Collection ($79.98 BBC/Warner), a veritable treasure trove of Cowardly delights. The set contains seven discs and runs some 19 hours (plus another 12 hours of bonus material that includes interviews, radio plays and more). The plays included are Private Lives (with the delectable Penelope Keith), Hay Fever, Design for Living, Present Laughter, A Song at Twilight, Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill and Tonight at 8:30.

This isn’t a CD, but while we’re on the subject of Coward, this year saw the release of a fantastic volume of Coward’s letters: The Letters of Noel Coward (Knopf, $37.50), edited by Barry Day. The beauty is that the book contains letters both from and to Coward, whose beastly wit entertains in every epistle.

CDs
The fine folks at PS Classics, the show-minded label that, in addition to turning out excellent original-cast albums, allows musical theater performers the chance to show their vocal stuff, have released some terrific new discs just in time for the holidays.

The best of the bunch is Lauren Kennedy’s Here and Now, a marvelous collection of show music and pop. Album highlight is Andrew Lippa’s “Spread a Little Joy,” followed closely by Jason Robert Brown’s “In This Room” and Adam Guettel‘s “Through the Mountain” (from Floyd Collins). Kennedy’s voice is so vibrant — at times so Streisandian — it’s irresistible.

PS Classics also is offering two more Broadway divas: Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark (Light in the Piazza) with Fifteen Seconds to Love, a solid collection mixing standards (“Right as the Rain,” “I Got Lost in His Arms”) and newer material (Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Red Dress,” Jane Kelly Williams’ “Fifteen Seconds of Grace”); and Andrea Burns (soon to be on Broadway again in In the Heights) with A Deeper Shade of Red, a set that mixes Joni Mitchell (“Chelsea Morning”) with Stephen Sondheim (“What More Do I Need?”) and Melissa Manchester (“Through the Eyes of Grace”) with Kate Bush and Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Man with the Child in His Eyes/Something Wonderful”).

PS Classics’ Songwriter Series with the Library of Congress’ latest offering is a doozy: Jonathan Larson: Jonathan Sings Larson. The composer of Rent, who died tragically the night before his show opened, is heard singing demos and performing live, and the disc paints an incredible portrait of an artist full of talent, humor and ambition. The accompanying DVD features four live performances from Larson’s gig at New York’s Village Gate.