Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Disney’s got an eye and an ear on this Blake production

Silver Spring school to perform pilot of stage version of ‘High School Musical 2’ this month

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Deep within James Hubert Blake High School, a chorus of melodic voices could be heard last week, singing tunes familiar to millions of 12-year-olds across America.

The songs were from Disney’s on-stage adaptation of its television movie, ‘‘High School Musical 2,” a 2007 sequel to Disney’s popular 2006 movie and subsequent on-stage performance.

Blake, which features a signature program for the fine arts and humanities, will be among the first high schools in the nation to perform the premiere of the on-stage show of ‘‘High School Musical 2.”

The school is taking part in a pilot program to work out any problems ahead of time for Disney’s professional production set for November, said John Prignano, the senior operations analyst for Disney’s licensing company, Music Theatre International.

Other schools performing ‘‘High School Musical 2” include Arlington Heights and Western Hills high schools, both in Fort Worth, Texas. Those production dates are set for September.

Prignano said he knew Blake could handle the responsibility because it was one of the first schools to perform the first on-stage version of ‘‘High School Musical.”

‘‘They’re kind of a soundboard for us,” Prignano said.

Other than one performance this spring from a high school in Texas, Prignano said ‘‘High School Musical 2” has never been done on stage. So performing it is much more than following a script, he said. It’s almost like inventing it.

‘‘We needed a school [that was] flexible and understood how to roll with the punches,” he said.

Putting on the show has been challenging, said Blake’s signature program coordinator, Michel D’Anna. Disney has only released a musical score for the piano, prompting D’Anna and his crew to write their own music to the lyrics, complete with bass, guitar and piano. Student musicians will play the instruments.

‘‘Disney is happy with us just doing a piano-conducted score,” D’Anna said. ‘‘We’re not.”

And while the script has been changed often by Disney, Blake’s July 17 production date has not.

That requires a lot of flexibility, said Justin Pereira, playing the heartthrob and main character, Troy Bolton.

‘‘You can’t expect everything to stay the same.” Pereira said, who is also double-cast as Troy’s best friend, Chad Danforth. ‘‘Disney is coming in, they’re saying, ‘You know what, this works better than what we had before,’ and they’re actually sending us new materials constantly.”

Prignano said he sends D’Anna a new script at least once every two weeks.

In the meantime, about 45 multi-talented students have given up their summer to spend almost eight hours a day singing, dancing and acting.

But the students seem happy to be there.

‘‘To think that you go to a high school that you’re privileged enough to be able to get that opportunity is great,” said Caroline Pledger, a member of the ensemble who will be a sophomore in the fall.

That’s because the Blake students will be a part of a pre-teen phenomenon.

The first ‘‘High School Musical,” a made-for-TV movie about two teenagers separating from their respective cliques, won two Emmys in 2006 for choreography and children’s program, and its music soundtrack was the top-selling U.S. album for 2006, ending the year at No. 2 for Billboard Top 200 albums.

‘‘High School Musical” has since turned into a franchise marketed through dolls, clothes and productions put on by actual high schools. The second movie debuted on the Disney Channel in August 2007 with 17.3 million viewers—nearly 10 million more than its predecessor.

An on-stage sequel was only natural, D’Anna said.

‘‘What Disney’s discovered in theater is that you have this whole sub-teen⁄early teen audience, and it’s a huge, huge population,” he said.

Disney representatives are coming to watch the show, D’Anna confirmed.

But Disney’s presence is only half the pressure. Having to assimilate themselves to already famous, pre-determined characters is difficult, said Jacob Perry, who will be a junior in the fall.

‘‘We walk into it with a lot of expectations already put on us to be a certain way,” Perry said, who plays one of the fictional school’s drama stars, Ryan Evans.

But D’Anna said he has high expectations that area youngsters will enjoy an opportunity to watch their favorite characters in action again.

‘‘It will be a great summertime happening for kids. It’s clean, it’s fun. It’s stuff we should hold onto all our lives,” he said.