BWW Review: Sing Along With GREASE at Toby's In Columbia
...still familiar to me, sends a thrill right through me...
Ready for some young energy at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia? Here's a whole high school musical of less-frequently featured faces, with the regular lions filling out the ensemble and making themselves useful in "adult" roles. The youthful company, including a remarkable newcomer, holds the piece together bedecked in rolled denim jeans, wiggle skirts, saddle shoes, Chuck Taylor sneakers, product-heavy hair and pink satin jackets- in short, just what you expect of GREASE.
I represent a certain target demographic. Once upon a time, I had the entirety of the Grease vinyl record memorized, the Olivia Newton-John Travolta version from 1978, as did many of my chronological peers: the album was the second-best-selling record of '78, behind Saturday Night Fever. GREASE the stage musical written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, however, originally was produced with grit and obscenity in 1971, as Chicago-specific, objectionable, and no place for wholesome Olivia Newton-John.
Beginning with its pre-Broadway tuneup, the show has been diluted repeatedly until there's little left of the gang rivalries, socioeconomic snobbery, ethnic division and shock-value swearing that originally were intrinsic to the show's appeal as a teenage rebellion fable. What's left is an American anthem to high-school pettiness and the transformative power of negative peer pressure, along with some catchy songs that don't have much to do with one another. Call it a guilty pleasure.
Toby's Dinner Theatre features family-friendly material on a regular basis, and, like PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, GREASE is popular with audiences despite desperately dated and mournfully misogynistic overarching themes. Even so, because do-wop, rama lama and shooby doop have such wide appeal, many will smile fondly at the songs from GREASE, ignore the script, and enjoy a family outing to see a live performance. So, though you can mark me down as "not a fan" of the foundational material, it's a perky little night out and Toby's does have great fun with the production.
Director and Choreographer Mark Minnick deploys his usual deft hand at group number arrangements from the outset. In a digression from the original, the flashback is not from a reunion, but graduation, which is much more plausible and also more easily managed. The dance moves are snappy and well-executed, and though the Rydell anthem officially opens the show, the fun really begins with "Summer Lovin,'" ("Grease Is The Word," the disco hit written by Barry Gibb and recorded by Frankie Valli specifically for the '78 movie, is happily absent from this production), with counterpoint alternating vocals. Minnick's choreography gets more interesting as the show progresses, and the inclusive, body-positive cast looks confident and enthusiastic executing it. As Doody, who leads "Those Magic Changes," Taylor Witt is charming, though his guitar lip-synchs the number while orchestra guitarist Daniel Lewis does the heavy lifting.
"Freddie My Love," the featured song for lovely Nia Savoy, playing Marty, is the mercenary treat I remember, and "Greased Lightnin'" looks good, sounds good, but has some ...hmm... unfamiliar lyrics. "Mooning" a duet between Roger and Jan, engagingly played by Toby's regular Justin Calhoun and the wonderful new addition Kalen Robinson, respectively, is adorable in every way. It's followed by the less-than-heartwarming "Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee" dropped with sass and pizzaz by Maggie Dransfield as Rizzo before "We Go Together" marks the end of Act I. A twenty-ish minute intermission follows, and our darling server Rachel delivers delicious Pink Lady Milkshakes, Toby's signature drink for the show. I recommend them.
Ross Scott Rawlings, Musical Director, delivers the harmonies we hope for, with some interesting variations. He and choreographer Minnick really shine in Act II's sock hop scene, where Jeffrey Shankle plays an appropriately slimy Vince Fontaine and Helen Hayes Award winner DeCarlo Raspberry really rocks his Johnny Casino. Our darling server Rachel Kemp nails her portrayal of Cha-Cha Di Gregorio, though another character calling Cha-Cha a gorilla only makes sense if you recall that GREASE was originally packed with slurs and stereotypes about people of both Italian and Polish descent.
I love the liberties taken with "Beauty School Dropout" and Crystal Freeman's take on Teen Angel chiding Allie O'Donnell's Frenchy. Naturally, Olivia Newton-John needed her own solo for the film, but the inclusion of "Hopelessly Devoted" as an alternate to "Raining On Prom Night" in live productions is discretionary, and often skipped, possibly due to its anti-feminist sensibility. It's performed well, though, by an extraordinarily earnest Nicki Elledge as Sandy Dumbrowski. Mark Minnick wisely envisions Danny Zuko, played by cheerful and cheeky Matt Hirsh, as very nearly Sandy's equal in innocence, and the drive-in sequence contains some very funny pantomime comedy. "Alone At the Drive-In Movie" is his solo (in the movie it was replaced by "Sandy") and Hirsh has a pleasing voice and expressive face.
"There Are Worse Things I Could Do," a powerfully sung solo ballad for Dransfield, who plays Betty Rizzo, is possibly the best-written song in the show, and it's a pity it's not as well known as some of the others. Maggie Dransfield herself has a remarkable range, and I hope will reprise her role as Sophie in MAMMA MIA!, which follows GREASE in this summer's lineup at Toby's.
"You're The One That I Want," written for the movie, is a fun, playful number in an unabashedly '70s-pop way, and the cast is clearly having a great time performing it.
In two generally undersung roles of GREASE are the impressive Louisa Tringali as Patty Simcox and Catholic U graduate Shiloh Orr as Eugene Florczyk. Louisa's secret to looking perpetually seventeen years old should be patented and sold for jillions of dollars, and her versatility in roles from supporting character Dainty June in GYPSY, ensemble performer in MAMMA MIA! to sultry lead Inga in YOUNG FRANKENSEIN is superlatively remarkable. Shiloh physically commits to Eugene's nerdy aesthetic 100%, and looks just swell in Danny's jacket.
In a featured role which I fully endorse, but which receives no credit in the programme or anywhere, is an adorably bedecked little buggy as Greased Lightnin,' the beater that Paul Roeckell, as Kenecki, intends to soup up and deck out. Whether the nod goes to Scenic Designer David Hopkins or Properties and Set Dresser Amy Kaplan, Tech Director Emily Thompson or another figure in the shadows, kudos and applause. It's super cute and I love it.
GREASE plays at Toby's through July 28th, to be followed starting August 1 by MAMMA MIA!
Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia,
5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia MD 21044
Photo: Allie O'Donnell (L) and Crystal Freeman (R) as Frenchy and Teen Angel
Photo Credit: Jeri Tidwell Photography