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Laurel Mill Playhouse cast makes the grade in 'High School Musical'

Cast of "High School Musical" at Laurel Mill Playhouse includes, from left, Allison Wickline, Nathaniel Thompson, Jordan Essex (rear), Delaney McGinniss, Carly Pometto, Yasmine Noland and Samantha Roberts.
Cast of "High School Musical" at Laurel Mill Playhouse includes, from left, Allison Wickline, Nathaniel Thompson, Jordan Essex (rear), Delaney McGinniss, Carly Pometto, Yasmine Noland and Samantha Roberts. (Photo by John Cholod)

Every summer, Main Street's resident community theater opens its stage to youth performances of Shakespeare, one-act plays or junior musical theater to the delight of local audiences.

This year, Laurel native T. J. Lukacsina has set the stage for Laurel Mill Playhouse's rendition of Disney's "High School Musical" (based on a popular 2006 made-for-TV movie), written by Peter Barsocchini, with book by David Simpatico.

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As director and tech designer, Lukacsina said he modeled the set after the interior of Glenelg High School. Reproducing an authentic high school setting in neutral tones with deep red accents works so well here that one can almost smell gym socks upon entering the Playhouse lobby.

If that's not enough to conjure memories of perennial teenage drama, Lukacsina's cast steps up to deliver an adorable production from the moment stage manager and techie Miranda Snyder lights the company's opening rendition of "Wildcat Cheer."

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Produced by Laurel resident Maureen Rogers and Laila Riazi, the romantic comedy shares some similarities with the well-known musical "Grease," a classic cult movie and 1978 blockbuster that starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.

But unlike "Grease," in "High School Musical" the songs are written by a score of more than a dozen writers instead of one person. Flowing gently under the musical direction of Billy Georg and Malarie Novotny's choreography (which is particularly lovely in "Get Your Head in the Game"), the upbeat song and dance numbers here should please any general audience.

Jordan Essex as the romantic male lead, Troy, appears as a fresh-faced jock and hardly a bad boy; his corresponding female lead, new-girl-in-town Gabriella (played by Danielle Kellner), is a down-to-earth genius who wants to fit in at her new school.

Simpatico has his boy meet girl at a ski resort during a karaoke contest on New Year's Eve.

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When "Gabs" shows up at East High School after winter break, the two vow to audition for the high school musical together. But existing cliques — and their school's "status quo" — toss peer pressure and fierce competition in to complicate matters.

The Jocks —Essex's Troy as team captain of the basketball team; Laurel residents Nathaniel Thompson and Maxwell Coward as Chad and Zeke; and Chris Weber as Jason — are training for a decathlon with Troy's father, Coach Bolton, played by Mike McCloud, of Laurel.

The Thespians — played by Jessica Harzer as Sharpay; Dave Martinek as Ryan; De'ja Crenshaw as Kelsi; and Laurel residents Jordan Hollis and Syndi Thomas as Cathy and Cyndra — are revving up for audition callbacks for the drama club's musical overseen by Ms. Darbus, played by Nia Rowe.

A third clique, the Brainiacs — Kellner as Gabs with Jaden Burnett as Taylor, Carly Pometto as Martha and Yasmine Noland as Kratnoff; along with Neriya Cook, Laurel resident Delaney McGinniss and Samantha Roberts — are members of the Mathelites and prepping for an academic competition.

The three climatic events are scheduled to happen on the same day, and Troy and Gabs must decide whether to disappoint each other or their friends and families.

Cassandra Ferrell as Jaxie, Loraine Hamlett as Ripper, Laurel resident Jerry McCloud as the Karaoke emcee— and Yvonna Smack and Laurel residents Sienna Rae Johnson, Kayla Sterling and Allison Wickline as cheerleaders — round out the cast.

All of the performances are enchanting, but a few stood out on opening night.

Essex and Kellner lend such wholesomeness to their characters that sweet chemistry was inevitable. Their rendition of "I Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" is bound to elicit sighs.

As Sharpay, Harzer — who alternates moments of bullying with subtle glimpses of a wrenching vulnerability — and Martinek as her sycophant brother, Ryan, were also outstanding.

Harzer's vocals, particularly in "What I've Been Looking For," simply shine.

Playing characters much older than an actor's years can be dicey, but under Lukacsina's direction, Rowe as Ms. Darbus and Michael McCloud as Coach Bolton build their childish squabbles without sacrificing a bit of believability.

And Coward — one of the youngest and smallest cast members — is hysterical at the end as he tries to woo Sharpay (who is twice his size), adding extreme cuteness to an already captivating ensemble.

Sometimes the best things happen by accident.

"High School Musical" continues through Sunday, Aug. 23, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. General admission is $23. Students 18 and under, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $18. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2, or buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org.

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