Musical with a message

A big (BIG!) stage show is about to happen in Prem Sahai Auditorium

The jocks of East High take center stage with the high-energy song "Get'cha Head in the Game" accompanied by the beat of bouncing basketballs. In the foreground are pit band members Kirk Greenly, Cody Seiser and Mike Kroona. Not shown are band members Josi Greenley and Chad Hill. The availability of a dramatically enhanced sound system makes it possible for the band to be backstage, out-of-sight, but still clearly audible everywhere in the auditorium.

Return with us now to those thrilling days of cliques, crushes and cafeteria food, better known as high school.

Whether you loved it, hated it, or barely survived it, Webster City High School’s upcoming production of the 2006 Disney hit “High School Musical” is a fun throwback to your own high school years. Watch your favorite high school characters: nerds, jocks, divas, cheerleaders, coaches and drama teachers sing, dance and act their way across the stage of Prem Sahai Auditorium.

It promises to be an unforgettable experience on several fronts.

Why “High School Musical?”

Greta Nelson, WCHS vocal music director, explains: “I was nine years old in 2006 when Disney’s ‘High School Musical’ premiered on The Disney Channel. I got sucked into anything connected with that show. I faithfully followed the choreography sessions in front of my TV set; I learned the lines to all the songs. It’s cheesy and campy, but in the best way. The message it has for high school students, and everyone, really — be yourself; be all you can be — remains valid today.”

By junior year in her own high school in Northfield, Minnesota, Nelson knew she wanted to teach music. Graduating from Wartburg College with a BS in music education, she took a job — the job she still holds today in vocal music — at Webster City High School. Looking back over five years, she says, “It’s better every year. I see more and more of our students stepping forward to develop and prioritize the musical aspect of their lives.”

Nelson is directing the vocal and instrumental music aspects of the show. She’s one of a trio that includes Candace Ruby, who heads up dramatic direction, and Lindsay Henderson, who is in charge of choreography. Since every one of the 35 or so actors in the cast must, in essence, become a “triple threat” — able to sing, dance and act — often all three at once, it adds up to a big job.

Ruby, whose theater career dates to a role in “The King and I” at age six, moved to Webster City in 1997. She comes by her obvious abilities as a director naturally, having led the worship team at Missionary Alliance Church, Blairsburg, before the pandemic.

She and Nelson chose “High School Musical” for this year’s spring play, in full agreement they had students who were capable of and would work hard to pull off such a big stage show. Her son, Gabe Ruby, plays the male lead, Troy Bolton. When interviewed two weeks before opening night, Ruby showed unwavering confidence in her cast, saying, “This is the moment (as the play coalesces two weeks before opening) I love in theater. Beautiful, natural things are happening on stage every time we rehearse. We have a great, talented group of students here.”

Just as naturally as Nelson concentrates on music, and Ruby on stage direction, Henderson, of Webster City, seems born to the role of choreographer. She studied dance for 16 years at Webster City’s Dance Connection, first under LuAnn Tanner, and later with Becky Harfst. She eventually taught dance herself at The Dance Connection, taught choreography for WCHS’s show choirs, and has been in charge of choreography for several recent plays at Webster City Community Theatre, including “Church Basement Ladies,” “Shreck Jr.” and “The Sound of Music.”

Admitting that “dance isn’t an important part of our culture,” she nonetheless took on the daunting task of teaching high school boys to dance for their roles in “High School Musical.”

“The boys, and all our students, are so willing, so enthused,” she says. “They show up for individual coaching, make time for four-hour choreography rehearsals on Sundays, and work hard every day at practice to perfect their craft. Now, it’s paying off; you can see improvement every day.”

Resisting the temptation to simply emulate the choreography of the Disney film, Henderson, instead, designed all original movements for every number (at least 15, depending on how you count) of the show.

“This is really my take on the music,” she says, “and I always adjust my ideas until I’m confident and comfortable we’ve got it right for the show and cast.”

Dave Parrott, who’s managing sound for the production, is a critical fourth member of the show’s management team. Parrott, who was department chair of Audio & Video Technology at Mt. San Jacinto College, Hemet, California, before moving with his family to Webster City in 2022, is a sound technician with rare professional experience.

“I’ve worked in lots of concert venues,” he says. “The acoustics in Prem Sahai Auditorium are as good as it gets.”

Nelson is full of praise for Parrott and his work.

“Dave ran the sound for our variety show productions (in Prem Sahai Auditorium) in March. His work made a huge difference in the sound quality throughout the auditorium, while still using our old equipment that dates from 1998. The effect his work will have on ‘High School Musical’ is going to be amazing. He’s spent countless (volunteer) hours in the auditorium, improving every aspect of our sound system, to ensure our students sound their very best. We’re so grateful.”

At a recent rehearsal, Parrott was everywhere, tuning the auditorium’s speakers and amplifiers, and fitting individual headsets for students. It was immediately clear he has a natural rapport with students, calling each by name, and encouraging them to do their best.

“Right now, we have mikes (microphones) on 17 of our actors. Next Monday, I expect to have four more,” he says. “The equipment is expensive, but will go a long way toward improving the experience for both actors and audience. We’re getting the most out of what our budget allows.”

In the Disney version of the show, East High School is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but was really filmed at a school of the same name in Salt Lake City. The two-level set in the WCHS production is one of the biggest in recent memory, dominating the large stage of Prem Sahai Auditorium. Candace, and husband, Jared Ruby, spearheaded the building of the set, ably assisted by many volunteer builders and painters. It’s got everything you’d expect to see in the real-life home of the East High Wildcats: lockers, classrooms, school office, band room, even a basketball court with hoop and backboard.

It takes great talent, chemistry and a big dose of nerve, for 17- or 18-year-olds to get up on stage, look into each other’s eyes, and sing a duet about falling in love. Yet that’s just what Troy Bolton, played by Gabe Ruby, and Gabriella Montez, played by Caroline Ehn, do with the song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” It’s as real a representation of a G-rated high school love affair as you’re ever likely to see.

Another duet, featuring Sharpay Evans, played by Rebecca Kenville, and Ryan Evans, portrayed by Hank Christeson, tells the story of their underhanded plot to dominate the East High drama club. The innate talent and natural projection they bring to the performance is notable, and capable of filling the large auditorium, thanks in part to the vastly improved sound system.

Perla Torres is convincing as overly-dramatic drama coach Ms. Darbus, at once poignantly telling her students, “Anything’s possible in the world of the theater.” Similarly, Brandon Lahr, who plays Coach Bolton, father of Troy, captures the stereotypical disdain of anything that isn’t sports in his son’s life, later realizing how limiting that can be to multi talented students.

No high school, real or imaginary, can run without daily announcements. Real-life brainiac Luke Holberg reads them over the PA system throughout the show, helping us understand what’s going on at East High that day. Look for him next to the “on air” sign at the top of the set.

A new feature that adds immeasurably to the quality and professionalism of the performance is a five-piece pit band composed, with the exception of exuberant drummer Cody Seiser, a WCHS student, completely of adult musicians from the greater Webster City community. They include Josie Greenley on keyboard, Chad Hill and Mike Kroona on electric guitar, and Kirk Greenley on bass guitar. The band is hidden from audience view — it’s behind the sign that says “band room” on the set — but is clearly audible throughout the auditorium thanks to a battery of microphones and amplifiers designed and set up by Parrott.

If the first-class set, singing and dancing aren’t enough, you can look for — and find — life lessons in this exuberant show. Tensions between jocks, brainiacs (serious students), and thespians and their all-too-real cliques come to a head when three crucial events in the life of East High happen on the same day: a championship basketball game, science decathlon, and school play.

Students with interests in more than one of them, including, prominently, the male and female leads, must choose, as in life, which to support. See the play to find out how it all ends.

By way of a small hint, though, the message resounding throughout “High School Musical” comes together in the show’s penultimate number, “We’re All in This Together.” As the curtain goes down, the entire cast is on stage dancing and singing: “Everyone is special in their own way. We make each other strong. We’re not the same; we’re different in a good way. Together is where we belong.”

Like the kids at East High, or anyone who got through high school, we all must move on down the path of life. As you watch this big, exciting show in support of our very own high schoolers, remember, those aren’t really Wildcats on stage, they’re 100% Lynx.

Tickets go on sale today, and can be reserved and purchased in advance on ShowTix4U www.showtix4you.com.

There are three chances to see the show: Thursday, April 19, and Friday, April 20, at 7.30 p.m., and Sunday, April 21, at 2.30 p.m.

Regarding the ticket-purchasing portal, Nelson advises: “This is a new way of selling tickets for us, but it’s our preferred channel for a number of reasons. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door, but to ensure you get the seats you want, the online portal is your best option.”


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