The gritty, groovy favorite Grease pumps ’50s rock and doo-wop into the silver dome at Casa Mañana.
by Martha Heimberg
published on Tuesday, March 5, 2019
The silver-starred lining of the geodesic dome at Casa Mañana flashed like a chrome bumper on opening weekend of Grease, the Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey musical of 1971 set in a tough Chicago neighborhood in the 1950s. Directed with fluid speed by Tim Seib, with musical direction by Edward G. Robinson, this show aims to please from the get-go.
Inspired by greasy fast food, oil-burning fast cars that double as make-out venues at the drive-in movie, and oily hairdos of the era, the show is a pop-rock, working class version of the way more sophisticated West Side Story. Here, the Italian and Polish kids in a gritty industrial city are looking for love anywhere but the harrowing halls of high school, where threatening English teachers and prissy cheerleaders rule.
What any teenager really needs is a get-down slumber party or a rockin’ sock hop.
The hit Broadway musical and the 1978 sanitized movie version reset on sunny California beaches clearly spark deep chords in audiences of all ages. (The film, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, is the highest grossing film musical of 20th century, according to Wiki.) Part nostalgia, part fast-moving, dance-demanding score, this show still excites more folks than middle-aged cowgirls, although a sizable number of the audience on a cold, rainy Saturday night, turned out in their high-heeled boots and glitter on the arms of jean-clad cowboys in dark Stetsons. After all, Grease remains a popular high school performance work. An eager crew of four girls in satin Pink Lady jackets lined up for photos in the lobby beside the show poster before the show, and two young guys with their dark hair slicked back and wearing black leather jackets chugged a Shiner at intermission.
Fort Worth audiences were ready to rock, from the moment the athletic dance ensemble hit the stage in red cap and gowns, singing of their “Alma Mater” on Michael Sabourin’s wide-open, dance friendly set design, and backed by a seven-piece band on a high-hanging catwalk, led by pianist/conductor Vonda K. Bowling. Unhappily, the sound was so loud on the night I saw the show it actually distorted the voices of the singers on several songs, especially for woman vocalists. I expect that adjustment will be tweaked by sound designer Eric Norris in future performances.
All the familiar songs surrounding the love story of bad boy Danny Zuko (sexy, wiry tenor Rico LeBron) and goody-girl Sandy Dumbrowski (willowy soprano Mary Mattison) are here. Women leaned onto the shoulders of their guys on “Summer Nights,” as Danny sings to his Burger Palace gang buddies about his macho conquest on vacation. The couple’s rocky romance reflects the times, and still leads to proper Sandy dropping her poodle skirt and petticoats in favor of Danny’s black Spandex male fantasy. Still, the two do generate some sexy adolescent ache singing “You’re the One That I Want.” Tammy Spencer’s costumes consistently suggest the 50’s era of black-leather and bobby-sox without being over-the-top cute.
Svelte Hannah Shankman is a tough, tightly-strung and ultimately touching Betty Rizzo, the easy girl who sings the satirical song, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” and the hard-eyed ballad, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” She generates some dance sizzle in her numbers with Austin Hohnke as Kenickie, her main guy and proud owner of the tricked-out hotrod he sings of in “Greased Lightning,” a rollicking ensemble number that had audiences hooting and clapping, as the fabled car rolls onto the stage.
Christian Probst is a sweet-faced, determined Doody, comically bent on mastering the changing chords on his electric guitar in “Those Magic Changes,” a sound we know from every rock song ever written.
Zachary Sutton as Roger, the big kid whose delinquent reputation rests on his bold mooning of authorities everywhere, is a hoot, especially when sweet-talking with Madison Kauffman’s bosomy, comic Jan in “We Go Together.”
Winston Daniels is a smooth, convincing Teen Angel singing the show’s doo-wop anthem, “Beauty School Drop Out,” with grade-challenged Frenchy, played by petite, round-shouldered Emily J. Pace.
Merrill West’s high-energy, uncomplicated choreography allows the dancers to do the bop, sling each other around to a jitterbug-swing step, and do some flips and cartwheels across the stage in ensemble numbers like “Shakin’ at the High School Hop.” All terrific fun, and executed with ease. Dance captain Ashley Arcement as ChaCha, the gorgeous stranger at the prom, lifts the level of the dance numbers to include some elegant Latin rhythms in her classic turn with Danny, in which she kicks her multi-ruffled dress over her head and burns a spot for herself on the dance floor, with or without a partner.
Smoking, drinking, teen pregnancy and the constant peer pressure to bend to the will of the crowd are still real issues for kids, but in the world of Grease, it all shakes out to a rockin’ finale. We all need a guardian angel and an occasional happy ending, at least when traveling back to the fab fifties.
Tickets available at bit.ly/Grease-at-Casa
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Photo Credit: Curtis Brown