By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Local theater companies seem intent on returning this aging writer to high school.
In February Bowling Green State University staged “The Wolves” about a teenagers on a female indoor soccer team. Now, on the same weekend, Bowling Green High is staging as its all-school music, “High School Musical: On Stage,” and the Owens Community College is producing the dramatic comedy “She Kills Monsters.”
(See times and ticket information below.)
And, no, it doesn’t help that BGSU opened its season with the play “You Got Older.”
The high school setting brings together the coming-off age story and clash of the individual against hierarchy, and high schools have those aplenty, with the bureaucratic administration and the cliques based on popularity and spheres of interest.
What’s a kid to do?
“High School Musical”
Well, in “High School Musical: On Stage,” one kid Kelsi (Emma Matney) writes a show about those early models of teenage angst Romeo and Juliet. She reimagines the play as “Juliet and Romeo” with the title characters surviving. This imaginary script provides the conflict on which “High School Musical,” also loosely based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, will revolve.
At East High home of the Wildcats, the twins Sharpay, drama club president, and Ryan Evans (Sarah Kelly and Ethan Brown) would be expected to assume the lead roles. But they have competition in the wings.
Troy (Hudson Pendleton), the star and captain of the basketball team, discovers a knack for singing while on vacation when he is thrust into the karaoke spotlight with a total stranger Gabriella (Terra Sloane).
They hit it off on the duet “Start of Something New,” and go their separate ways. For Gabriella, that’s East High.
So here she is, a bright young woman gifted at math and science, reunited with this hunk of a sensitive jock. She falls in with the nerdy crowd and finds a new best friend in Taylor (Olivia Strang) the head of the Brainiacs.
Taylor enlists Gabriella to the competitive math team while Troy has the team, coached by his over-bearing father (Isaac Douglass), counting on him to win the championship.
But can they do that and still find time to reignite their love of singing and being together?
Sure, they can. They’re teenagers. They do this all the time. If they didn’t, there would be far fewer actors populating the stage at the Performing Arts Center. But this is Disney’s “High School Musical,” not the BG High all-school musical. So in the play, circumstances and their classmates conspire so they can’t do both. Their teammates go to great lengths to keep them from auditioning for the musical so they can win the big game for their respective teams, and then they go to great lengths to make the now unlikely audition happen. Meanwhile Sharpay moves through the corridors trying her best to sabotage them.
The whole production is a wonderful swirl of energetic plotting.
As usual in these plays the adults are more objects of manipulation than guiding forces. Charlotte Perez as Ms. Darbus, the theater teacher, alternates from being excited to being exasperated as she struggles to cast her show. She’s trapped between Sharpay’s slick routines — Kelly and Brown’s contrived audition number is a hoot on “What I’ve Been Looking For” — and distrust of Troy’s intentions.
I’m sure Ms. Darbus would love to have the cast that director Jo Beth Gonzalez has assembled here.
Yes, a lot of these faces are familiar, but without any of Sharpay’s complacency.
Pendleton and Sloane are striking as the lead couple. They sing well solo, but their duets take on greater strength.
Meanwhile Kelly and Brown make a great comic duo. She’s the dominant twin, calling all the shots. She, after all, has starred in 17 drama productions in a row. Kelly lets a sense of the desperation that fuels her ambition bleed through just a bit. Brown signals that he may be getting tired of the act, and would like to separate a bit. East High needs to stage “Singin’ in he Rain” so he can play Cosmo Brown.
Matney’s Kelsi represents a steady force at the center of this maelstrom. Matney does the best job I’ve ever seen pretending to play the piano. She appears to be reading the score, including turning pages and that grounds her character more than any dialogue. (I really want the show to be about Kelsi. After all, she’s written an entire musical as a high schooler. That’s special.)
When Troy’s singing talent emerges, he inspires his classmates to break out of how others see them, and celebrate hidden talents.
In the production number, choreographed by Tim Barker, “Stick to the Status Quo,” Jock Zeke (Thomas Long) announces he loves to bake, and that he has a crush on Sharpay. Brainiac Martha (Maddy Depinet) steps out as a closet rapper.
And this being a product of the Disney dream factory, in the end, they all get to have this without sacrificing their established roles, except for Sharpay, who ends up being cast as the nurse in “Juliet and Romeo.”
“She Kills Monsters”
At Owens, the setting broadens from the school halls into a landscape of swamps, forest, caves and mountains “of steepness” populated by malicious creatures. There’s also an empty suburban home.
That’s where we find 24-year-old Agnes (Kari Duffy-Shrader) sorting through the belongings of her 15-year-old sister Tilly (Emma Bozanich) who died suddenly in an accident.
Agnes and Tilly were never close, and the older sister, who is an English teacher in their hometown high school, now regrets it. When she finds the outline of a Dungeons and Dragons adventure that her sister had plotted out, she’s at first mystified. Then she decides that maybe playing the game will help her connect with her sister. She enlists local teen nerd Chuck (Isaiah Zapata) to serve as dungeon master.
In this world, the two sisters do come together along with the odd assemblage of creatures sprouted from Tilly’s imagination.
There’s Lilith Morningstar (Hannah Demski), an underworld queen who mixes beauty with brawn and a taste for the flesh of those she kills. Then there’s Kaliope the elf (Alyson Phillips), who has agility and brains, but not much emotion. Joining them is Orcus (Esteban Vega), a god of the underworld who has retired to his easy chair and television to watch all the hit shows of the 1990s.
He traded the soul of Tilly’s character, a 20th level paladin, to a five-headed dragon for that TV.
As the party moves from encounter to encounter, confronting evil faeries (Reagan Moloney and McKensie Binau), Agnes learns facts about her sister, but the more she learns the more confused she becomes.
Back in the world of high school, she tries to discuss this with jaded guidance counselor Vera (Melissa Shaffer), who seems to have the empathy of the elf character. Being told she’s the worst at her job, doesn’t seem to bother Vera at all.
Agnes also discovers that those fantasy characters, including the faeries, have real life models.
That’s true even of Steve (Tim Cieply), a hapless guy who is always showing up in time to be summarily dispatched.
And Tilly brought Agnes’ long-time boyfriend Myles (Wes Richard) into the game, and Agnes is forced to do battle with him.
The outlines of Tillly’s life begin to take shape. These real life revelations prove more moving than the intentionally overwrought game encounters. Playwright Qui Nguyen has captured the juvenile awkwardness of a 15-year-old’s imagination. The cheesy dialogue and the guidance counselor’s caustic comments add a comic layer over the emotional yearning at the heart of “She Kills Monsters.”
In the end, Agnes completes her quest, and Tilly lives on for her, and for the audience.
“High School Musical” runs Thursday through Saturday (April11-13) at 7 p.m. with a Sunday matinee, April 14 at 3 p.m. in the Bowling Green Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $14 and $12 for seniors and students from the box office which is open 3-6 p.m. through April 12.
“She Kills Monsters” runs at the Owens Community College Fine and Performing Arts Center, Thursday through Saturday (April11-13) at 7:30 p.m. with a Sunday matinee, April 14 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12 and $8 for Owens faculty, students, and alumni. Call 567-661-7081.