Lively ‘Grease’ Is a Time, Place and Feeling at Stages St. Louis

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
“Grease” may be the word, but I have one for the Stages St. Louis production: Vivacious!

This funny and nostalgia look at 1950s teenagers and the decade’s burgeoning rock and roll culture bursts with ebullient performers who deliver the beloved songs with panache.

Those songs never get old. “Summer Nights,” “We Go Together,” “Greased Lightning,” “Born to Hand Jive” and “You’re the One That I Want” are among the catchy show tunes in the style of Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Elvis Presley that entice sing-a-longs. (And eager audiences are ready).

Integrated with the snazzy dance numbers choreographed by Tony Gonzalez, and costumes to match, they capture the look and sound of a bygone era — but also a universal feeling.

And certainly not that we were all the cool kids. Far from it.

By now, the worldwide smash hit is as familiar as your senior year in high school. So why do people return over and over to watch high school shenanigans?

Photo by ProPhotoSTL

“Alone at the Drive-In Movie,” “Beauty School Dropout,” “Those Magic Feelings” and “It’s Raining on Prom Night” touch on all the fretting that comes with being a teen, no matter what generation.

Maybe it’s that sense of trying to fit in, to belong. That underneath that tough T-Birds exterior are guys desperate to figure it out — masking those insecurities (on display so well in James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause”). And the Pink Ladies really wanting to be Gidget, but not letting on they are afraid they don’t measure up.

On the surface, it is all fun times, that sweet flush of youth during a more innocent time – but dealing with grown-up issues AND hormones.

“Greaser” Danny Zuko (Sam Harvey) fancies “good girl” Sandy Dumbrowski (Summerisa Bell Stevens) one summer, and lo and behold, she transfers to his public high school, not the Catholic one. Whoa. Kind Frenchy (Lucy Moon) invites Sandy to hang out with the Pink Ladies, but rough-and-tough Rizzo (Morgan Cowling) is not nice to the new girl.

Rizzo has her own issues with boyfriend Kenickie (Jesse Corbin), but school isn’t a high priority with anyone except  Patty Simcox (Aisling Halpin) and nerd Eugene (Brad Frenette).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            “Grease” is a cultural phenomenon nearly 50 years old — and has been revised multiple times, with the most significant changes made in the 1978 movie, then adopted for a 1993 London stage version, which incorporated four chart-topping songs from the movie written by Barry Alan Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon. This is the version Stages has the rights to, and it makes a difference.

You would not much recognize the original 1971 stage version, which has been sanitized from Jim Jacobs’ and Warren Casey’s initial effort about working-class high schoolers in a Polish part of Chicago, based on Jacobs’ alma mater in Cicero.

Photo by ProPhotoSTL

The duck-tailed, hot-rodding Class of 1959 of Rydell High resembled those ruffians, and the gum-snapping and hip-shaking Pink Ladies were a combination of bad and mean girls. The raunchier version has been toned down, but there are still the themes of peer pressure, teen pregnancy, gangs, class conflict, and good old garden-variety teen rebellion.

This cast, with a few who have been out of high school for some time, seem to gel well. They sure can shake, rattle and roll in their musical numbers, and exaggerate their characters for comic effect. Their school and home scenes, under Michael Hamilton’s smooth direction, delve deeper into social interaction, with different conversations and motives at play.

While it’s obvious the cast is older, “Grease” isn’t a production that hinges on authenticity. Just go with the fantasy.

(After all, back in my day, most of these people would have been considered juvenile delinquents, not people to emulate. And changing into a sexy siren to get a guy? Oh dear. When would that fly today?)

“Grease” did not become a massive hit because everyone’s enamored with hooligans. The modest musical parodying the 1950s had an eight-year run on Broadway and two popular revivals in 1994 and 2007, plus the movie is the no. 1 movie musical of all-time, not to mention all the productions in schools, regional and community theater.

People can identify with awkward adolescence and ‘types’ – if you don’t recognize yourself, you know others who do. The supporting cast is appealing, particularly Patrick Mobley as shy Doody, eager to be a chick magnet with his guitar, and merry Brooke Shapiro as Jan, desperate to have a beau.

Photo by ProPhotoSTL

Moon is terrific as Frenchy, and “Beauty School Dropout” is one of this show’s highlights, in staging, choreography and costumes. Showing off her powerful pipes, Kendra Lynn Lucas is a showstopper as the Teen Angel. She also doubles as Miss Lynch, but in a rather confusing development is flirty with students.

Steve Isom evokes those early rock ‘n roll disc jockeys in his on-air patter and hosting dance contest duties as Vince Fontaine.

Julia Johanos is admirable as a stylish Marty, who acts worldly older on purpose, while Collin O’Connor is amusing as Roger of ‘Mooning” fame. Frankie Thams tries to be a rowdy Sonny.

Summerisa Bell Stevens is a radiant Sandy, and after impressive turns as Sophie in “Mamma Mia” and Doralee in “9 to 5,” she demonstrates her vocal talents once again. She is at her best with “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

I didn’t feel the pairings of Danny and Sandy and of Kenickie and Rizzo were all that convincing, but their singing and dancing skills were dandy. Harvey did a nice job with the ballad “Sandy,” and as much as Rizzo’s mean-spirited “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” annoys me, her “There Are Worse Things I Can Do” was fine.

The rest of the energetic ensemble includes Bryan Purvis as Peggy-Sue, Madison Tinder as Doreen, Matthew Weidenbener as Frankie, Erik Keiser as Junior, Zach Trimmer as Johnny Casino and Tiger Brown as that fleet-footed Cha-Cha Di Gregorio. Lisa Campbell Albert did her usual stellar job as musical director, with orchestral arrangements by Stuart M. Elmore.

The cast certainly looks the part in their stunning vintage outfits, tailored to perfection by resident costume designer Brad Musgrove and his crew. His choice of fabrics is spot-on and he has created looks that could be straight out of the movies “Pillow Talk” and “A Summer Place,” or McCall’s magazine, complete with bobby sox and saddle shoes.

Scenic Designer James Wolk makes interesting use of the space with two staircases so that transitions are smooth, and he has built a car – a red convertible that serves its purpose. He had me at hi-fi and 45s. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting design enhances it beautifully.

This “Grease” does what it’s supposed to do – present a time, a place and a feeling, and as a bonus, has the groove and meaning audiences want.

Stages St. Louis presents “Grease” through Aug. 18. Many shows are sell-outs but tickets are available Aug. 13, 14 and 18. For more information or tickets, visit www.stagesstlouis.org

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