You may leave High School Musical 3: Senior Year feeling stuffed with cotton candy, but you have to give credit to the showbiz ingenuity and chutzpah of producer-director-choreographer Kenny Ortega. Without fear of repetition or exhaustion, he ushers us back into East High in Albuquerque, N.M., where the glittering red-and-white halls might be assembled from brand-new Lego blocks, and all the students are above average in musical-stage skills. Ortega is adept at whipping up megajoules of energy from ingredients so pro forma that in other hands they'd produce nary a spark. He delivers just what High School Musical fans want: another Troy-almost-loses-girl story.
Although events are even more banal than usual in Senior Year, Ortega makes sure they're performed at fever pitch. This film starts with the state basketball championship on the line for the East High Wildcats. When team captain Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) sees his true love, Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens), emerge dressed in white from a red sea of Wildcat fans, the inspirational silliness is all on the surface. It's as if Ortega is saying, take it or leave it. Of course, millions of tweens' parents won't be able to leave.
When the plot kicks in, everything appears to be set for that fast-breaking, quick-stepping basketball and dramatics star Troy and brilliant, talented singer Gabriella to live happily ever after, even after high school. Gabriella, though, is on a fast track to Stanford, and Troy has yet to tell his hoops coach and dad that he may not attend the University of Albuquerque. (He may even want to study theater.) And though most seniors unite to put on the best darn spring gala ever - a musical version of their own senior year - there's always Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) waiting to snatch the spotlight and turn it into what kid composer Kelsi Nielsen (Olesya Rulin) derisively calls "another Sharpay show."
Despite such welcome additions as Sharpay's own Sharpay, a perfectly appointed "personal assistant" named Tiara Gold (Jemma McKenzie-Brown), this is just another "Troy and Gabriella show." Thank the devil for that little vixen Sharpay, or maybe Tisdale. While the 20-something performers surrounding her must play teenagers who are all sweetness and light (with just a little roughhouse edge), she goes all-out with blond ambition, as if Sharpay is 17 going on Madonna.
It's refreshing to see a high-school movie that eschews gross-out gags and elevates romantic courtship rites. But with almost everyone trying to out-nice each other (each practical joke ends with cleansing group laughter), your mind may wander toward shadier questions, such as just how creepy is Sharpay's relationship with Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), her dazzling dancing partner, choreographer and twin brother?
Older moviegoers will appreciate Sharpay's quip about Ryan doing "some yoga-Fosse thing," as well as the references to musicals like Royal Wedding and backstage classics such as All About Eve. Ortega and his co-choreographers are admirably proficient as they get the musical numbers to slide in and out of "real" sets and locations and onto the East High musical stage (or the stage of the performer's imagination).
Occasionally, they cut loose, whether with Ryan's glitzy "I Want It All" showstopper or the gritty "The Boys are Back," an athletic tour de force performed by Troy and his best friend, Chad (Corbin Bleu). But the movie goes on too long. Viewers are already up and clogging the aisles by the time Ortega brings the principals back for a final bow.
High School Musical 3 wore me out, but I'm not the target audience. My favorite high school musical was Hamlet 2.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year
(Walt Disney Pictures) Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu. Directed by Kenny Ortega. Rated G. Time 113 minutes.
online see a preview and more photos of High School Musical 3 at baltimoresun.com/movies