Disney’s Up Here is High School Musical for Adults
A talented cast holds up this rom-com, despite uneven musical numbers.
Up Here Series Review
Disney has been a longstanding proponent of live-action televised musicals. From High School Musical, to Camp Rock, to Teen Beach Movie, Disney has covered every level of the teenage emotional spectrum across an array of settings. Up Here is a refreshing take on a typical Disney musical, as it explores insecurity in adults, instead of teenagers.
Premiering on Disney+ in Canada and Hulu in the United States on Friday, March 24, Up Here is a musical romantic comedy that follows its two main protagonists as they fall in love. In 1999, Lindsay (Mae Whitman) and Miguel (Carlos Valdes) cross paths in New York City bar. As two people who feel like they don’t quite fit in at home, at work, or with their friends, they bond over shared insecurities. Over the course of the eight-episode series, Lindsay and Miguel’s search for love, acceptance, and identity is punctuated with musical sequences.
Lindsay and Miguel’s insecurities manifest as people who have undermined their self-esteem from the past. Lindsay, a struggling writer, is haunted by her disapproving parents (Katie Finneran and John Hodgman) and middle-school frenemy Celeste (Sophia Hammons). Miguel is a former video game designer turned investment banker. Miguel’s mother (Andréa Burns), teenage mean girl Renee (Emilia Suárez), and the guy his latest girlfriend cheated on him with (hilariously played by Scott Porter) taunt his insecurities. The show’s musical sequences revolve around Lindsay and Miguel’s internal struggles with the ghosts of traumas past.
The first two episodes of the Up Here tell Lindsay and Miguel’s stories prior to meeting each other. These introductory episodes provide bird’s-eye view of why the protagonists are stuck in a rut and where their respective traumas originate from.
Episodes three through six follow Lindsay and Miguel’s up-and-down relationship with each other, themselves, and their careers. Up Here’s writers allow the audience to see both characters’ perspectives, so they can emphasize with Lindsay and Miguel. Their relationship is realistic in the sense that their miscommunications derive from their own insecurities and assumptions about the other. Lindsay and Miguel are relatable characters in the sense that they’re trying to portray a confident version of themselves to the world while silently processing traumas and embarrassments from the past.
The last two episodes are the strongest of the series. In episode seven, Lindsay confronts her past. On a trip to Vermont, the audience finally meets Lindsay’s mom in 1999, after only seeing her as the disapproving voice in Lindsay’s head from 1983. The scenes between mother and daughter add depth to Lindsay’s story and give the audience a better view of their nuanced relationship. In episode seven, Miguel also returns home to his family, shedding light on why his mother’s voice resonates so loudly in his head. Whitman and Valdes convey strong emotional performances in this episode. By focusing the penultimate episode on the human counterparts of Lindsay and Miguel’s insecurities, the overall theme of identity becomes more poignant.
The last episode shows how far Lindsay and Miguel have come since the beginning of the series. On the eve of the New Millenium, their character development becomes more pronounced. A cliffhanger opens the door for season two and lets the audience see that while Lindsay and Miguel have grown, they still haven’t outgrown all of their insecurities.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the award-winning team behind Disney’s Frozen, Coco, and WandaVision soundtracks, penned the original score. While their lyrics and melodies are clever and have Disney’s signature upbeat vibe, none of the songs are memorable.
The musical sequences interrupt scenes and divert attention from the strengths of the series. Whitman and Valdes can command the screen with their charisma and chemistry, but the musicals distract from their talented performances. The musical sequences themselves are uneven, each one a callback to a different Broadway show style. Instead of paying homage to Broadway classics, Up Here blends styles. One performance reads as Chicago meets Cirque du Soleil, but does nothing to deepen Miguel’s inner turmoil. The dance performances are chaotic and lack the tight choreography from High School Musical. The musical numbers take away from the comedy instead of adding to it.
The show works well as a romantic-comedy. Whitman and Valdes have believable chemistry. The split-screen moments where Lindsay and Miguel swap stories over their landline phones convey sincerity. Their witty banter is engaging and feels authentic. Lindsay and Miguel’s deep conversations resonate, and their moments of clarity feel earned and authentic. Their convincing performances make the audience feel invested in their journey.
Up Here’s adult humor, tone, and musical asides are reminiscent of the television musical comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The characters’ comedic foibles and shenanigans highlight the actors’ talents. Up Here’s actors lean in to physical comedy, like when Lindsay clumsily attempts to climb a fence. The supporting cast also adds to the show’s comedic strengths. Miguel’s clownish finance co-workers display a raunchy, campy humor that nicely balances Miguel’s straight man comedic performance. Ted McGooch (Broadway veteran Brian Stokes Mitchell) believably plays a kooky children’s author who mentors Lindsay and helps her develop her talent.
The writers provided the perfect backdrop for pop culture nostalgia by choosing to set the show in 1999. The cusp of the New Millenium was the last sliver of time before the advent of technology. With no technological distractions, Lindsay and Miguel’s internal monologues could shine at the forefront of the narrative. By leaning into the late ‘90s pop culture angle, the story stands out in a charming way.
For fans of High School Musical who have grown up, Up Here is a silly, entertaining ride. The show’s writers dangled a cliffhanger, which opens possibilities for Lindsay and Miguel’s story to continue. If Disney renews Up Here for a second season, the showrunners would do well to lean into the comedy and pop culture angles while deemphasizing the musical numbers.