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Disney shows it takes two to really tango

Times Staff Writer

To answer your question, it’s even better than the first one. What this will mean for the Disney Channel, the history of musical theater, the state of cable television or the future of the world as we know it remains to be seen. But “High School Musical 2" is zippier, bouncier, prettier, more soulful and even more musical than its predecessor, and that’s saying something.

It’s also a primer on how to successfully follow the template of a phenomenon -- which turns out to be loosely but also unapologetically. So yes, there is a musical competition (talent show instead of tryouts), a boy-friendly, sports-themed number (this time it’s baseball), a crisis of conscience for Troy (Zac Efron) and an opportunity for Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) to lean moodily against lockers and sing a wistful song. But there’s so much more.

Beginning on the last day of school at Albuquerque’s East High, “HSM2" follows a Wildcat summer and wastes only scant minutes before sending the whole gang hoofing through the hallways in a big celebratory number (“What Time Is It?”). About to turn seniors, Troy, Gabriella and friends are all concerned with “making bank” -- saving money for college. (And this is why parents love Disney.)

For richie-rich Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and her brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), this, of course, is not an issue; off they go to Albuquerque’s tony Lava Springs country club, where Sharpay schemes to win Troy away from Gabriella by giving him a job. Troy, being the golden boy he is, however, manages to bring along Gabriella and the gang, including best friend Chad (Corbin Bleu) and Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), the most prolific young composer since Barry Manilow.

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So while the Wildcats learn a few hard lessons of the workplace (bosses can be mean!), Sharpay attempts to seduce Troy with the possibility of the ambitious life, which could result in a basketball scholarship to the University of Albuquerque. Heady stuff, and our boy is tempted, much to the dismay of his friends (hence Gabriella’s sad song). But this is Disney, which is to say not Ayn Rand, and so the needs of the individual will always bow to the collective, with the requisite ginormous dance number.

The big winners in the sequel are Tisdale and Efron. Tisdale is clearly having more fun than a thin blond should be allowed to have in public, vamping it up in her Fergie-like salute to summer -- “Fabulous” -- as well as her Britneyesque rendition of the song Kelsi wrote (sniff) for Gabriella and Troy, “You Are the Music in Me.”

Does she overact? You bet. But since Sharpay is the closest thing the “High School Musical” Weltanschauung has to a villain, that’s part of the job, along with flouncing, hair-flipping, eye-narrowing and shrieking. If she were 20 years older, Sharpay could be played by Glenn Close or Michelle Pfeiffer.

Efron, meanwhile, is honing his acting chops. Returning from his stint in “Hairspray,” where he worked with the likes of Pfeiffer, Efron brings more emotional heft to Troy than was evidenced in “HSM.” The dilemma he faces -- whether to follow his ambitions at the cost of his friends -- is also more adult and resonates beyond being the conflict required to keep the plot, and songs, cataloged and moving along.

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Still, he gets several chances to show off his well-sculpted self on the basketball court and a pretty terrific solo -- “Bet On It.” Singing and dancing through his confusion and into our hearts on a golf green backed by the awe-inspiring red rocks of the American Southwest, Efron has all the handsome enthusiasm and grace of an old-fashioned movie musical star.

The rest of the cast is as it ever was. Hudgens is lovely to look at and listen to (if a trifle nasal), though she apparently still can’t dance. As Chad, Bleu needs to work on the nuances of anger (the stare-down scene between Chad and Troy borders on camp), but he’s young yet, and he can dance. And sing. And look as fabulous on a baseball diamond as on the basketball court. Kelsi remains Most Likely to Win a Tony, but alas, she still has to wear those silly hats. As does Ryan, though he finally steps from under Sharpay’s shadow and reveals that he’s not the one-dimensional “poodle” everyone assumed he was.

The miracle of the “High School Musical” franchise also remains intact. Once again, writer Peter Barsocchini and director Kenny Ortega have created an alternative world just as fanciful as that of Hogwarts, and they play it just as straight.

Where else would an alpha male like Troy continually arrange spontaneous picnics? Or the lapdog brother turn out to be a baseball star? Where else would the narcissistic, shallow ethos of Sharpay get to look so lighthearted and Busby Berkeley glamorous as it pays homage to Esther Williams and the June Taylor Dancers?

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With “High School Musical,” the first and second, Disney has created an entirely new subgenre of entertainment: the American musical junior edition. The themes of loyalty and self-discovery may seem a bit on the light side when compared with “Music Man,” “West Side Story” or even “Damn Yankees,” but the dance numbers are just as inspiring and the songs strike the hearts of the young television audience just as accurately as “Jet Song” or “76 Trombones” struck the hearts beating on Broadway.

Bright and shiny and bursting with pep, “HSM2" continues the quest to introduce a new generation to a vanishing commodity. The live-action musical movie has been on life support for a couple of decades now, and this may just be the eleventh-hour infusion it needs.

The third “High School Musical” will be a feature film, so perhaps it is not too much to hope that as today’s tweens and teens enter their 20s, they will bring the lessons they have learned at East High with them: Be true to yourself, be true to your friends and, at the least provocation, break into song and dance.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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‘High School Musical 2'

Where: Disney Channel

When: 8 tonight

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Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)


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