Even though college students aren’t far removed from being high schoolers themselves, the theater students in “Disney’s High School Musical” at Minnesota State University are getting a reminder of how they have grown with the inclusion of nine current high schoolers in the cast. The stage version of the musical that many in both groups grew up with hits the Ted Paul Theatre for eight performances Thursday through Oct. 9. And it is a story many of them connect with.In the play, Troy, Gabriella and the students of East High must deal with issues of first love, friends and family while balancing classes and extracurricular activities. Basketball captain Troy and the brainy Gabriella cause an upheaval when they both get cast in the upcoming musical. As it turns out, however, this casting opens the door for others.“We tried to stick to expectations of the movie,” said director Matt Caron. “We found that the students (high school and college) both strongly resonate with the story as is. This is a franchise that many of them grew up with, so they seem to be having a great time reconnecting with something that so deeply influenced them in their childhood.”Nobody is happier to be on stage with “High School Musical” than Sarah Potvin, who plays Gabriella, the new girl at school who, with her crush, Troy, breaks with expectations by auditioning for and being cast in the school’s musical.
“This show has been a joy to work on. It has been my favorite movie since I was 5 years old, so the nostalgia has been at an all-time high stepping into the world of the East High wildcats,” Potvin said.One high school cast member who has a special connection to the production is Amelia Wayne, whose father, Nick, is the musical director. A ninth-grader at Mankato East High School, she said the toughest thing is simply adding music and choreography to tell the story. She plays a cheerleader.
“The biggest challenge has definitely been putting the songs and choreography together, and it has been a long process,” Wayne said. “But the most rewarding part has been seeing it all come together, and it is looking great. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”Wayne knows they’re all in it together, and she can get help from Sydney Marcia, a senior at Connections Academy who is a second-year full-time PSEO student at MSU. She also plays a cheerleader. A full-time online student for a few years, she is also active in competitive dance and performed at Mankato West and Mankato Playhouse.“My biggest reward is getting the chance to understand how this theater department works and runs things before I decide on a college,” she said. “Overall, this has been a great experience.”Saarah Hassan, a junior at Mankato West High School, is happy to be able to get back on stage and perform with a talented group of actors in a college show. She said not being able to socialize very much and having to wear a mask while performing added to a bad remote learning experience.
“Now, being in ‘High School Musical’ here, it really feels like everything’s getting back to normal and I can feel the love I have for theater get even stronger.”The director has nothing but good things to say about the hard work put in by the high schoolers in the cast. In a way, he said, it raised the level for the college students who could see themselves in the role of mentor.“We held the high schoolers to the same high standards as our college performers — and they rose to the challenge beautifully,” Caron said. “They’ve been incredibly dedicated, and a wonderfully positive addition to our team.”
In a very strong way, then, they reflect the level of acceptance portrayed in the play. And it’s a spirit that was incorporated by choreographer John Greer, a third-year MFA candidate in musical theater. His choreography was seen in “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Sound of Music.” He also portrayed Monsieur Loyal in “Tartuffe.”After meeting with the director and musical director to find where movement was needed outside of the big dance numbers, he worked with what the cast showed they could do to make movement cohesive, fun and supportive of the script.
“My basic approach to the choreography was to use what the cast was able to do to help them feel good and confident with the movement,” Greer said. The toughest part, he said, was working with a cast of 41 and making the movement crisp and clean.“The reward is always watching the production come together and the cast bond as they work with each other and become a family,” Greer said.Ultimately, the show reflects a difficult time in a person’s life, director Caron said. Just because it’s difficult, however, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.“Adolescence is always a serious subject. But I see the main important (idea) being not so much adolescence, but more the theme of ‘What it means to be me.’”