High School Musical 2

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8-10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17
Disney Channel

Here it is, the most risk-free prophecy of the decade: "High School Musical 2" will be a smash.

Had you forecast such success for the original, you would have been out on a limb. Not even its most ardent supporters guessed that "High School Musical," telecast in January 2006, would inspire countless high school plays, a best-selling album, a theatrical tour, an upcoming ice show and the undiluted loyalty of countless teens and tweens.

Why did it happen? It was such a perfect reflection of what kids dreamed high school would be like. At the same time, there was a winning combination of theater, music and dance performed by a cast that was wholesome yet undeniably sexy. Mixed together, it made young hearts skip a beat.

So then the question is whether Disney Channel, using the same faces and mostly the same crew, can once more produce lightning in a bottle. Not quite. This one is more like neon in a Coke sign. Still, it's going to be bright and shiny enough to light the way for young fans who probably feel like they waited an eternity for the sequel.

The original dealt a fatal blow to social cliques at East High. It offered a faint echo of "Romeo and Juliet" with its hopeful romance between Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) of the jocks and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) of the geeks. That didn't leave many dragons left to slay.

"High School Musical 2" has to settle for something less, merely defeating the schemes of rich but delightfully venal Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), who wants Troy for her own. The story tries to cloak itself in a grander theme -- something like it's not nice to discard your friends purely for selfish reasons -- but without Sharpay as villainess, this movie goes nowhere.

The story opens as the clock ticks off the final seconds to summer vacation. Troy needs a job, and Sharpay arranges for him to get one at her country club. Then, in a move that stretches credulity light years past the breaking point, the club manager agrees to hire all of Troy's high school pals in one fell swoop.

With no winter musical to stage, writer Peter Barsocchini settles on a country club talent show. Sharpay plans to pressure Troy to sing a duet with her by dangling promises of a bright future, but of course, that's as likely to happen in a Disney movie as a discussion of capital gains taxes.

You can make a case that this is to musical theater what Hamburger Helper is to fine cuisine, but that ignores an important point. Even with its eye-rolling plot and its McMusic, "High School Musical 2," like the original, does well by doing good. While Disney coffers swell, these movies inspire a new generation to think seriously about dance and about the impact of drama laced with music.

Truth be told, there's more than positive social impact to praise here. Director Kenny Ortega, who shares choreography credit with Charles Klapow and Bonnie Story, puts the young cast through some exciting moves. One number in particular, "I Can't Dance," performed on a ball field, would be a show-stopper almost anywhere. Ortega prefers performances that are a little over the top but, at the same time, not out of place in this film.

Fully aware of how lucrative the franchise is, Disney plans a third installment, this time for the big screen. And as long as it clings tightly to the formula, it's safe to predict yet another smash.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2
Disney Channel
Salty Pictures and First Street Films
Credits:
Executive producers: Bill Borden, Barry Rosenbush
Producer: Don Schain
Director: Kenny Ortega
Teleplay: Peter Barsocchini
Director of photography: Daniel Aranyo
Production designer: Mark Hofeling
Choreographers: Kenny Ortega, Charles Klapow, Bonnie Story
Editor: Seth Flaum
Score: David Lawrence
Set decorator: Kenneth J. Kirchner
Casting: Jason La Padura, Natalie Har
Cast:
Troy Bolton: Zac Efron
Gabriella Montez: Vanessa Anne Hudgens
Sharpay Evans: Ashley Tisdale
Ryan Evans: Lucas Grabeel
Chad Danforth: Corbin Bleu
Taylor McKessie: Monique Coleman
Kelsi: Olesya Rulin
Zeke: Chris Warren Jr.
Martha Cox: KayCee Stroh
Mr. Fulton: Mark L. Taylor
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