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Review of 'The American Mall'
(aka brokeass 'High School Musical')


“High School Musical” with an edge? Is such a thing possible? “The American Mall,” MTV’s answer to that Disney juggernaut, arrives on Monday night, and while it won’t disappoint “Musical” fans — on the contrary, it will thrill them — don’t expect it to shock anybody over 7. Slightly less sophisticated than the midmarket shopping mall that is its setting, “American Mall” is to “High School Musical” as “The Little Mermaid” is to “The Mickey Mouse Club”: older, wiser, marginally sexier — and pretty wonderful.

The story: Ally (Nina Dobrev) is a songwriter who works at the mall in her mother’s music store. Joey (Rob Mayes) is a mall janitor who’s also, conveniently, the frontman of a boy band consisting of his fellow janitors. He’s been fishing Ally’s unfinished songs out of the trash and writing lyrics to them.

Beautiful duets result. But spoiled Madison (Autumn Reeser), whose father owns the mall, makes Joey the model for her designer clothes, produces his band and puts Ally’s mother out of business so she can expand her store in the space.

Ms. Reeser, an alum of “The O.C.,” makes her character as seductive and brittle as a desperate 40-year-old: call her Cruella de Mall. She represents money and sex, which allows “Mall” to come down squarely on the side of poverty and innocence. Anyway, its plot revolves around more interesting things.

Sears and Payless, among many other stores, must be happy with their product placement here, but “Mall” hardly celebrates consumerism. Its characters don’t shop at the mall; they just work there. The security guards, clueless and hilarious, are the Dogberry and Verges of the production — or maybe the Keystone Cops. Nobody engages in retail therapy; they’re too busy duct-taping each other to walls, or looking for love.

Sitting at the food court on a break and ogling the boy-band janitors, one of Ally’s sidekicks defends herself: “Look, people come to the mall to shop for all kinds of things. Why not boys?”

When a teenage band member joins her, she eats a corn dog in a suggestive fashion, and asks him his name.

The boy is paralyzed with fright. “Dude,” he says to a friend, “she scares me.”

Meanwhile, Madison splashes sleek photos of herself and Joey all over the mall and renames his band (after herself). The band members protest.

“I just didn’t think the sell-out phase of our career would happen before the career phase of our career happened,” one says.

The musical numbers are predictable — think mops and mannequins — but with clever touches. At the end of the anthem “Survivor,” a cellphone rings. The girls who have just been belting out lyrics about empowerment and independence turn into giddy idiots, running to answer.

“Mall” comes from some of the same people behind “High School Musical” (and the sequel, and the feature film). Things seem more natural here, or at least less overproduced. Lip-synching problems aside, songs like the duet “Sorry’s Not Enough” are stirring: the kind of music we all might enjoy if we didn’t have to be cool. Like its love story, “Mall” has a setting that is conventional to the point of banality. But this show is so fully realized, in all its cheesy, lowbrow, food-court-catered glory, that it becomes, like its Disney predecessor, utterly satisfying.

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