Written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, Grease was first performed as a stage musical in the early 1970's and was followed by the well-known 1978 film version. Set in the late 1950s, Grease chronicles social tensions of high school and love lives of teenagers. Thinking their summer passion is a thing of the past, Sandy and Danny are surprised to encounter each other at high school, where he is part of the tough, cool crowd while she is seen as a prissy goody-two-shoes. The tug-of-war between peer pressure and forbidden romance leads to memorable scenarios, including an eye-opening slumber party and an exciting dance contest. Although the musical is often seen as a nostalgic journey through a simpler time, there is actually some harsh material in the show, as characters grapple with teenage pregnancy, violence, and rebellion. Within the toe-tapping upbeat musical numbers, glimpses of gritty reality peek through. While a feminist reading of the material can provoke criticism that Sandy compromises her true identity in order to fit in with the crowd, a whole lot of nifty singing and dancing holds the show together, and that’s plenty good enough for most folks.
I have a long, fond history with the musical Grease, launched by preteen viewings of the film version on VHS. Although I participated in just about every high school play available to me, Grease didn’t make it into the lineup those four years, though I wager there may still be a “Miss Lynch” portrayal somewhere in my future. I made it through second semester calculus my freshman year in college by playing the musical’s score over and over during panicky study sessions. (In fact, when I took the final exam, I found myself mentally singing certain Grease songs in order to solve specific kinds of calculus problems!) I finally had the opportunity to get involved in a real live stage production of Grease when I directed the show as a high school teacher. It was a special time in my personal life, too, as my then-boyfriend/now-husband helped out backstage, inspiring our soon-to-be-maid-of-honor playwright friend to dedicate a one-act play to us, aptly titled “Hopelessly Devoted.” All that personal rigmarole is offered here to build context: this reviewer was primed and ready for Grease.
Happily, the current production of Grease at Village Square Theatre in Lexington does not disappoint. Even ardent fans will be satisfied with the performances of a talented cast and marvelous musicians. Standout actors include Maddie Hammond as Sandy Dumbrowski and Tyler Inabinette as Danny Zuko, who capture the exquisite yearning of teenage romance. As Sandy, Hammond has enough verve in the goody-goody phase that she can make a convincing transformation to the closing scene’s knockout. Inabinette makes an appealing Danny, wavering between his tough guy persona and sensitive side. Ashley Manley nails the complexity of Betty Rizzo’s iconic bad girl with (maybe) a heart of gold. In the role of Kenickie, Stephen Fisher personifies a convincing greaser, constantly tangled in a web of hormonal excitement with Manley’s Rizzo or obsessed with his beloved car, “Greased Lightnin’.” Manley’s “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” is touching and formidable, showcasing the powerhouse voice glimpsed earlier in “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee.” The leads’ considerable vocal talents are well suited to their particular singing roles, and both couples have great chemistry onstage.
The other Pink Ladies (Lydia Kemmerlin, Lydia Carter, and Miranda Campagna) and Burger Palace Boys (Zach Lambert, Chance Morgan, and Harrison Carter) contribute enjoyable performances. As Patty Simcox and Eugene Florzack, Riley Goldstein and Marshall Mishoe fulfill the overachiever and nerd stereotypes while also discovering very real teenagers within their roles. The cast members do a great job of evoking goofy immaturity that coexists with earnest attempts at worldliness and sophistication, a classic dichotomy in teenage life. Debra Leopard plays a delightful Miss Lynch, while Jeff Sigley hits the right notes as the sleazy radio personality Vince Fontaine. Melissa Hanna as Cha Cha Degregorio infuses the dance scene with infectious energy and impressive skill. In the role of Teen Angel, Joshua Wright conveys clever comic timing and mellifluous crooning essential for “Beauty School Dropout.” Hannah Presor makes an adorable cameo appearance as a dancing box of popcorn. Additional cast members include John Carter, Bailey Gray, Connor Gray, Jessie Miller, Martha Smith Miller, Kara Rabon, Elizabeth Rawson, Katarina Shafer, Griffin Todd, and Sydney Torbett.
Noteworthy musical numbers include the lovely “It’s Raining on Prom Night,” Kemmerlin’s soulful “Freddy My Love,” the enthusiastic “Summer Nights,” a slickly synchronized “We Go Together,” and Inabinette’s heartfelt “Sandy.” Grease just isn’t Grease without an awesome “Greased Lightnin’” – both the song and the car – and at Village Square, Fisher, his buddies, and top-notch choreographer Hanna pull off a crowd-pleasing number, supported by the spiffy work of “master car technician” Matt Marks.
Director Becky Croft achieves a unified vision with a complex production. In a show where the songs are so familiar and vital, strong musicianship is essential. Musical director Stephanie Nelson leads an excellent onstage band, energized by Mike Nelson as Johnny Casino. Creative and crisp choreography by Hanna provides a great strength for Village Square Theatre. The show’s capable support team includes Tonya Hammond (Producer), Jamie Presor (Stage Manager), Daniel Woodard (Technical Director), Nancy Huffines and Heidi Willard (Costumes), Debra Leopard (Lighting Design), and Brian Rabon (Sound).
Varying levels of theatrical experience and stage presence exist, as the cast covers a spectrum from first-time actors through performance veterans. A quality that makes community theatre so valuable is how artistry and education can co-exist. Grease is a very effective vehicle for entertaining audiences while also developing young performers.
Potential viewers should realize that this show has a bit of an “edge,” with some mild language and raunchy content, so families with young children will want to make informed decisions.
Grease will spark happy memories for long time fans of both the stage musical and the film. The production will surely create new devotees in first time audience members. Drive your own “Greased Lightnin’” right on over to the Village Square Theatre and “doowop da doobee doo” your heart out at this swell show.
~ Melissa Swick Ellington
For more information on tickets, visit http://www.villagesquaretheatre.com/. Show dates and times are:
Friday, October 3- 7:30 pm Saturday, October 4- 7:30 pm Sunday, October 5- 3:00 pm Friday, October 10- 7:30 pm Saturday, October 11- 7:30 pm Sunday, October 12- 3:00 pm