By Chad Nance
“We take pressure and we throw away
Conventionality belongs to yesterday
There is a chance, we can make it so far
We start believing now that we can be who we are…”
– Barry Gibb
The Theater Alliance’s “Grease” is exactly what we need it to be… a nostalgia trip songbook production that hits all of the right notes and features some truly outstanding performances. This production is a completists dream show- an omnibus presentation of the original book and music by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey along with the songs from the classic film soundtrack written by Barry Gibb. While episodic and a bit arythimic in spots, “Grease” pays off big for the audience with more applause lines than any other show you are likely to see this year.
“Grease” is everything that you remember it is. Sassy and bawdy in a playful, knowing way that quickly wins gets the audience on its side, Theater Alliance’s “Grease” makes up for a lack of compelling narrative with some wonderful performances that provide more than enough charm and personality than is needed. The songs bring the audience in the door. “Summer Nights”, “Grease”, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “You’re the One That I want”, and about a dozen more numbers that are certified classics of the genre. What keeps the audience are the genuine and skilled performances that pay off, like the show, as episodic set-pieces.
Brynn Lewallen is suitably adorable, wide-eyed, and innocent as Sandy. The way that the show is structured leaves whomever plays Sandy a tremendous amount of work to do. She seems like an absent presence more than a flesh and blood human being for the majority of the show. In the end, her change into luscious sex-kitten in satin-pants (yes they do) feels like the first time the character truly comes alive. The restraint inherent in the roll requires an actress to spend much of her energy reining a performance. It isn’t until the perm is on that Lewallen really seems to enjoy herself and she leaves a vibrant and lasting impression because of it.
Trey Cameron gives us a Danny Zucko that isn’t as good-naturedly stupid as John Travolta’s and instead brings to mind Richard Dreyfus’ performance in American Graffiti- the quintessential American teen struggling to figure out exactly who the hell he is. Cameron seems more at ease with the other performers in the show allowing for some of the funnier back-and-forth to really play. His singing is fine and he understands what works with the music, but it is his amiable performance and earnestness that makes Danny worth hanging out with throughout what is essentially a revue.
Suzanne Vaughan plays Rizzo with all of the hard-edges, cynicism, and warm hearted romanticism required of the best written role in “Grease”. Her performance is the stand-out of this show and her work on “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” is the musical highlight of this production. Her Rizzo is the most recognizably human in a production filled with brilliant comic performances and her personal narrative brings all of the emotional heft that “Grease” has to offer. Vaughn handles the weight with a soulful, skilled performance that is the heart of this production.
Zach Pfrimmer did some excellent work in the Theater Alliance’s previous production of “Next to Normal”. Here he is allowed to indulge his more theatrical impulses and really puts it all out there as Kenickie in a scenery-chewing performance that is one of the funniest in the show. Pfrimmer is a dedicated performer who wears himself out squeezing every last laugh and moment out of the material. His entrance for “Greased Lightening” is a show stopper.
“Grease”’s secret weapon is John C. Wilson. His performance as Doody is a comic tour de force. Part David Lander’s “Squiggy” and Red Skelton, Wilson provides an almost burlesque comic performance that becomes so engrained in the experience of the show that a viewer finds themselves smiling every time he steps onto the stage.
Rebecca Phelps makes a sympathetic and sweet Frenchy. Yansa Crosby is a sexy and exuberant Marty and Stephen Melaga’s Sonny displays brilliant comic timing. Carlton Marshall owns the “Teen Angel” number. Garry Wadell’s Vince Fontaine and Becki West’s Miss Lynch handle the grown-up roles with knowing humor and skill. New-comer (rising RJR High School Freshman) Beatrice Howell is a strong singer and her absolute dedication to the role of Patty is endearing and impressive.
The bench is deep with this show and as usual the Theater Alliance provides a fun night out at the theater. With material this well-known and beloved it would be easy to just coast by on the strength of the show itself. No one at Theater Alliance has that attitude, however. Down to the ushers this show displays an effort, focus, and genuine sense of showmanship that is unique in non-profit, community theater. Get your tickets early, you won’t regret it. Shoop, doo-wop.
Special Mention: David Cole & Jeremy Donahue did amazing background work as Additional Students in “Grease”. You will be delighted when you see them perform.