Pick of the Week

The Other Wildcats

You're never far from a Wildcats fan in Tucson. However, interest in the University of Arizona's Top 25 men's basketball team could wane just a bit this week in the face of the enthusiasm fans have for the Wildcats of East High School.

That's the fictional institution in the world-famous Disney juggernaut High School Musical, the stage production of which is playing at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall through Sunday, Jan. 6.

Based on the ubiquitous, Emmy Award-winning 2006 TV movie of the same name, this touring show may not have Zac, Vanessa and Ashley, but it includes 34 young theater performers, a live orchestra and all the singing and dancing in the original, plus two new songs ("Counting on You" and "Cellular Fusion") and a new character written specially for the stage version.

Michael Mahany plays that new character, Jack Scott, a shy and reserved East High student who comes out of his shell when he becomes an announcer on the school's radio station. His observations help guide viewers through the plot starring star-crossed sweethearts Troy and Gabriella, who are devoted to basketball and studying, respectively, but discover a mutual love for musical theater as they try out for the school play.

Mahany, who originated the role, said Jack was initially written as a narrator-type figure.

"But, eventually, as things moved along, he became more of a developed character, which is awesome," Mahany said on his cell phone last weekend from the show's stop in San Diego.

Mahany said he sees his character as not unlike Clark Kent.

"He doesn't fit in with anybody around him. It's not so much that he doesn't like anybody, but he just doesn't have any good friends. He kind of has some of the different qualities of each of the different cliques of the school. He wears a lot of plaids covered with stripes. And there's the horn-rimmed glasses, which is mostly why I liken him to Clark Kent. He's awkward in everything he does until he gets on the radio, and he becomes someone else completely. That's when he becomes Superman, in a sense. He speaks with this very low voice. He calls himself the Velvet Fog of East High."

High School Musical debuted on the Disney Channel to 7.7 million viewers, bringing in many more with subsequent airings in the United States and dozens of other countries. The success inspired a sequel that was first broadcast in August 2007. The first movie's soundtrack became the top-selling album of 2006, moving more than 4 million copies.

With such success, a stage version was a no-brainer. But at first, the theatrical version of High School Musical wasn't created for a national touring company. It was licensed to six regional theater companies--not to mention almost 3,000 middle and high schools, Mahany said.

Atlanta's Theater of the Stars offered the first professional production, opening at that city's Fox Theater on Jan. 12, 2007. It was directed by Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun (who also directed the Tony Award-nominated Big River) and starred Mahany in the Jack Scott role.

The Atlanta production was an immediate success, Mahany said, causing Disney to expand it into a touring show. The national production opened June 26 in Detroit, the first of scheduled 60 cities.

Mahany, who is 25 and studied musical theater at the Boston Conservatory, has appeared in the original, off-Broadway production of Spring Awakening, as well as regional productions of Into the Woods and Annie Get Your Gun. He also has been seen on TV in Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

But even those experiences didn't prepare him for the uproarious response High School Musical gets wherever it plays. "In some small way, we all feel like celebrities every night. We've got kids lined outside screaming and yelling for autographs," he said.

And not just kids who attend, he added.

"It has such a wide variety of audiences. We certainly have a specific demographic that we've pulled from, and that's the tweens. But there are their parents, too, and young adults and grandparents."

Although High School Musical spawned several DVD releases, a concert tour, novels and an ice show, and preparations have begun for a third film that will open in movie theaters, the stage version has added value, Mahany said.

"Now all these kids are coming to the theater. I know it sounds cliché, but it really is true. Many of these kids may not necessarily have been exposed to the performing arts, and now, they are coming to the theater and experiencing this aspect of the arts. And hopefully, they will get hooked, and keep us working for years to come."

Broadway in Tucson presents High School Musical at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave., at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 3; 7:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 4; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 5; and 1 and 6:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 6. Tickets cost $20 to $56; call 321-1000 or go to broadwayintucson.com for tickets or more information.

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