BWW Review: GREASE is Still The Word at Theatre Tuscaloosa
Still to this day, whenever anyone asks "what's the word?" My pavlovian reply is verbal and with volume, "Grease" is the Word." It's got groove. It's got meaning.
Theatre Tuscaloosa is feeling the groove with a rocking production of the classic musical "Grease." From Broadway to the big screen, it's timeless and global appeal beams from the nostalgic mythos of the American teen. Spoofing the campy "popcorn" teenager pictures of the 50's and 60's. "Grease' is a celebration of youthful self discovery. The book, lyric and music by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey provide a rock and roll cadence to an American classic.
"Grease" is modern day Americana. Like apple pie and the fourth of July, the iconic love story of Danny and Sandy has sung its way into literal generations of fans. However, this musical does contain dated source material that is rightfully, no longer seen as acceptable or entertaining. Sexism, objectification of women, and inappropriate advances are just to name a few. This production led by director Steven Tyler Davis gives visible adjustments to the story. Specifically addressing those issues with a wonderful tone of female empowerment. If you question if "Grease" can still be the word in 2019. Theatre Tuscaloosa proves the answer to be yes it can Daddy-O. Davis shares "I wanted the show empowerment for Rizzo and Sandy. Sandy makes the decision on her own to change, not to change who she is to get her man." Tyler peppers moments of "Girl Power" in the staging throughout the performance. "I wanted to do "Grease" in respect to the world that we live in now; to show the power of the female characters.
If you are unfamiliar with this iconic musical, "Grease" is a coming of age boy meets girl love story set in 1959 at Rydell High School in California. Music is stacked with handfuls of classic songs that will get you moving. The cast of characters is a full-bodied tapestry of knuckleheads and comedy tropes. Sandy (Callie Walker) is the innocent, bright eyed, girl next door who just moved to town. Danny Zuko (Nolan McKinney) is the tough leader of the pack known as the T-Birds. These two teenage lovebirds met prior during the summer at a far away beach. The time they spent was magic, neither will ever forget. Sandy's surprise transfer to Rydell freaks Danny out. His immaturity and reluctance to show his sensitive side to his friends leads him pushing her away instead of drawing her close. Sandy (Walker) ends up on the radar of the girl squad named "The Pink Ladies", led by the razor sharp Rizzo (Margaret Carr). The two girls begin as oil and water. But the progression of the story leads to building a strong foundation of tight friends.
The strong chemistry between the "The Pink Ladies" registers as if they were sisters. However with the guys of the "T-Birds", the friendships seemed to lack similar substance. The attention to the female dynamics was a clear point of attention in the development of the production. I did find the chemistry between Danny and Sandy lacking at times. I did not feel their love connection as the kind of bright shining star in the night's sky. With adjustments, I can see it being stronger.
The ensemble is jumpin and impressive in voice and movement. I found stand out comedic performances by smoothed voice Doody (Jake Whipple), comedicly ravenous Jan (Marie Nearing), busy body Patty Simcox (Zion Victoria Lewis), salty principal Mrs. Lynch (Kathy Wilson), glitter-tastic Teen Angel (John Walker), the rambunctious rump-rumpy Roger (Jailan Kelly). After the curtain call, I was able to speak with some of cast to gain their insight into the shows development.
Hannah Villines (Marty) - "This is my first production with theater Tuscaloosa and it's been a very wonderful experience. Everyone welcomes you with open arms right from the first moment. You do feel like a family, and the bond is growing throughout the process.
Meredith Vaughn (Frenchie) - "What I love about doing this show is the various ages in the cast. I would never think that at only 17, Margaret (Rizzo) and I could fit together so well. But we did instantaneously.
Callie Walker (Sandy) "We just kind of naturally had a groove. I remember us sitting out in the hallway in the first day that I came in on rehearsal. And we just kind of worked the bedroom scene a lot. And really found the quirks of each of our characters. "Grease" is typically cast with actors that are older than high school teenagers. I think it's an awesome opportunity for young actor actress to get to play these roles as age-appropriate. When you watch the movie, the actors are all in their 30's playing teenagers. It's been an awesome opportunity to be on stage with Margaret. Being on stage with her during her performance of "There Are Worst Things I Can Do" brings me to tears."
Margaret Carr (Rizzo) - Two hours of one rehearsal was specifically just talking about what women go through, sexual assault, and pregnancy. There was a lot of thought and planning going into this production. It's kind of looked at as an out dated show. We wanted our work to break it away from that that perception.
Callie Walker (Sandy) - People often look at Sandy existing with these two sides of her. I really don't think it's two sides. I think it's her finding her sexuality. We are all sexual creatures in our own way, and she's figuring out how that feels for her. I think wearing the leather pants act as a choice she makes for herself rather than for men. And that's the thing I think we've taken on in the show. We didn't want Sandy to come off as someone just conforming to what a man wants.
Nolan McKinney (Danny)- "It was challenging getting into the mindset of such a huge iconic character. Without going too far and playing him like a caricature instead of a realistic guy in this not so realistic world. Playing that type of contrast is fun. It's almost like playing two characters at once.
Musical director Leslie S. Poss leads the powerful vocals of the cast with rock and roll band with a great ear for the era. She shares some of the challenges nailing down the Signature Sound. "The music comes across initially very simple but it takes some energy to getting the voices and instruments lined up. Due the addition the four songs from the film, ("Grease", "Hopelessly Devoted To You", "You're The One That I Want", "Sandy") we needed to figure out where they were going to be placed, how that would fit with scene changes, and to add some playoff music." Poss enjoys the "Johnny Be Good" vibe found in the shows music. "I love the feel of doo-wop, rockabilly, and driving 50's rock 'n' roll. I feel fortunate to have grown up with some of that as real music with great instrumentals and vocals going together. I'm very proud of what the band and singers are doing."
Director, Steven Tyler Davis adds, "Casting the characters presented some questions at the start. I flew down in April, and I wasn't sure to go with the presentation the movie where everyone was like in their 30s. It was a surprise to have such fresh, energetic high school and college students attend the audition. So we chose to stay true to the age demographic. The energy is there and I was very grateful to have them show up."
Theatre Tuscaloosa Executive director Tina Turley looks at this production with pride. "I wanted to do something for young performers, and I thought why not. I knew with the play was not like the movie so I was hesitant for many years. Then when they allowed us to have the rights to the four songs that are very iconic in the movie. I was like it's time to do "Grease." We have all of the raw talent. We needed something fun and lively. Let's do it!" Turly has a connection and history with many of the cast and crew in this production. "Cole Babiness (Kenickie) was one of my little ones in a production of "The Sound of Music" years ago. I was in the room when Margaret Carr (Rizzo) was born. Now I get to see her on stage. Steven Tyler Davis was a former student of mine and we stayed very close. There was a whole group of them that I was really close to, and it's so good to see their confidence and talent growing over the years. I'm really proud of it. I love them. It's a love fest around here!" She says with a heartfelt laugh and cheerful smile.
The magic of "Grease" is its simplicity, and relatability. Choreographer Lindsay Sockler makes moves that are infectious. Hair and make up by Ava Buchanan is dippty-do'ing it right. Costumes by Jeanette Waterman are a hit with leather jackets, to poodle skirts. Set designer Wheeler Kincaid and lighting designer Erin Hisey create a no frills, simple, and easy transformable world. Equipped with projector screens and a layered ramp to play in the vast space of the Bean Brown Theatre. The focus toward expedited scene changes is notable. The pacing leaves no hiccups. Just rock and roll.
Theatre Tuscaloosa's production of "Grease" is definitely automatic, systematic and hydromatic. Watching talented young actors breathe life into this classic musical is well worth the trip. "Grease" is definitely still the word.
Full cast and crew list - here
GREASE at Theatre Tuscaloosa
9500 Old Greensboro Road (on the campus of Shelton State Community College)
Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35405
July 12 - 21
Tickets and more info at (205) 391-2277 and www.theatretusc.com
There is one 15-minute intermission. The play contains some light fake cigarette smoke. (just odorless tap water vapor), one pair of scandalously tight black leather pants, and a imported Mississippi hot rod named Suzanne as "Greased Lightning"