Call it a musical with training wheels, call it corny, call it old-older-oldest-school — as in Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and “Let’s put on a show!” — but High School Musical makes the journey from The Disney Channel to the big screen with its “Gee whiz” intact. Wholesome, chaste to a fault, with forgettably catchy tunes and crackerjack choreography, the HSM virtues and faults are writ large in High School Musical 3: Senior Year.
And if this frothy flounce hasn’t a trace of edge, accept that as just part of the charm. Kenny Ortega, Disney’s house choreographer-director, runs us through a Senior Year of big decisions and big production numbers with flair and without irony.
Troy (Zac Efron) finishes basketball season, is drafted for the big “musicale” and has to choose between athletics and a shot at Juilliard. Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) has Stanford in her plans. Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) schemes to keep the spotlight aimed in her direction. Her overdressed choreographer twin brother, Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), and his composer gal-pal (Olesya Rulin) work on the big show for the melodramatic drama teacher, Ms. D. (Alyson Reed). A couple of younger kids step into the wings, waiting for the senior spotlight hogs to toss that mortarboard into the air and leave Wildcat World to them.
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Musically, the show peaks early with an eye-popping I Want It All duet between Sharpay and Ryan. The laughs aren’t big or plentiful. It’s sentimental, nostalgic, just like senior year. If the guys burst into song in the middle of a basketball huddle, you go with it. Just allow yourself a giggle at the Troy-on-the-court/Gabriella-in-the-stands re-creation of that famous moment in The Natural, and move on.
Ortega’s choreography shines in every setting, never more than in the most scenic junkyard ever as BFFs Troy and Chad (Corbin Bleu) sing of the good times they’ve had. A Last Waltz number between young lovers Troy and Gabriella is the emotional high point.
The big “musicale?” It’s a spectacle, all right. Plainly, Albuquerque isn’t cutting back its performing-arts curricula.
The acting is more adequate than great. But the whole enterprise has an infectious energy that can only come from the young pros in that cast. It’s a gateway musical, training kids to appreciate this classic American art form. Parents might appreciate the movie’s unspoken put-off-thinking-about-sex-and-sexuality ethos. Older kids will giggle at the odd homoerotic moment.
Like Sex and the City, HSM3 was built almost exclusively for fans of the TV movies. If you aren’t between ages 6 and 14 or don’t have kids, you might have trouble getting into that Wildcat spirit. But don’t be shocked if Senior Year takes you back, just a bit, and makes you wish every high school was a little like East High.