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'High School Musical' resonates through theater crowd

For Ryan Stana and Gaelen Gilliland, Pittsburgh Musical Theater's "Disney High School Musical" also is a homecoming event.

Stana serves as the musical's director and choreographer, and Gilliland appears as drama teacher Ms. Darbus.

They're now New York-based professionals.

Stana is executive producer of RWS Associates, a company that produces shows for businesses and theme parks as well as live stage touring shows built around children's characters including Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine.

Gilliland has been seen on Broadway in the ensembles of "Wicked" and "Legally Blonde" and is among those already cast for a role in the musical "9 to 5," which is scheduled to begin previews April 7 on Broadway.

They're happy to be back where they began their careers as high school students. Pittsburgh Musical Theater's production of "Disney High School Musical" begins performances tonight at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

"Coming back to the city was important to me," says Stana, a 1998 graduate of Hempfield High School who performed in the Good Vibrations ensemble. "My grandmother always used to say, 'Ryan, do not forget your roots.'"

After getting involved with musicals at Fox Chapel Area High School, from which she graduated in 1992, Gilliland took Saturday and summer classes at Pittsburgh Musical Theater and performed in the company's 1990 production of "A Lyrical Christmas Carol."

She returned to play Maria in "The Sound of Music" and Mrs. Walker in "Tommy" during Pittsburgh Musical Theater's 2000-01 season.

"I'm always glad to come back to work for (Pittsburgh Musical Theater founding director) Ken (Gargaro), because he gave me my start and my Equity card," Gilliland says.

"High School Musical," which began as a wildly popular original movie on the Disney Channel, follows the triumphs and frustrations of a group of high school students as they vie for roles in their high school's annual musical while coping with teenage anxieties brought on by parents, teachers, friends and competitors.

"I love its message that it's OK to be in musical theater and OK to enjoy it as an athlete," Gilliland says. "What an exciting message that it's cool to do musicals and be part of a group that's not just the band geeks."

"This show is infused with a love for theater," says Stana, who points out it's a show that connects a new generation of musical theater lovers with characters they can relate to. "It's also for their teachers. There's so much heart behind this.

"We had 'Grease.' I (thought) I could have been Danny Zucco. They have 'High School Musical,'" Stana says.

"I would have been Gabriella in another life," says Gilliland, referring to the musical's lead who finds her allegiances split between being the brainy science student and wanting to perform onstage. "My character (Ms. Darbus) spends time battling her other side, then sometimes she thinks she would want to be the star of the production."

But the resolution is upbeat and inspiring, Stana says.

"In the end, it all comes together and (leaves you) feeling, 'I can follow my dream.'"

Additional Information:

'Disney High School Musical'

Produced by: Pittsburgh Musical Theater

When: Tonight-Feb. 8, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays and Feb. 7

Admission: $10-$39.50; $10-$18.50 for students

Where: Byham Theater, Sixth Street at Fort Duquesne Boulevard, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666 or Web site

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