BWW Review: Arts Center of Cannon County's GREASE is Fun, But Out of Step With The Times

BWW Review: Arts Center of Cannon County's GREASE is Fun, But Out of Step With The Times
Braden Wahl and Kait Kloss

Since its 1971 premiere, Grease - the musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey - has evolved from a wild and raunchy send-up of 1950s greasers to a highly sanitized musical comedy romp, the kind of which audiences of all ages can enjoy, while feeling perfectly safe in doing so. And while Grease has become more of a story about the kids next door engaged in all manner of high school hijinks, its story of how young, prim and proper Sandy Dumbrowski manages to get her "man" (the oversexed Danny Zuko) may seem even more dated and out-of-touch than it ever has.

For today, during the height of the "Me Too" movement and the realization that sexual harassment is a prevalent problem in all levels of society, Sandy's transformation from a good girl (crafted in the very image of the era's screen star Sandra Dee) to a painted-up, tarted-up goodtime gal seems rather inappropriate. The storyline may seem innocent enough, to be sure, but the lesson it imparts - a girl has to do what a girl has to do to get her man - is frankly distasteful in this day and age, even if it's related in an entertaining fashion.

And therein lies the difficulty in reviewing the current production of Grease now onstage at The Arts Center of Cannon County: it's fun, perhaps even joyful, and audiences are clearly delighted to reward director Matthew Hayes Hunter's youthful cast with riotous applause at the appropriate moments, but do they really endorse the message of the timeworn Jacobs and Casey script? Heck, do they even think about it?

Probably not, we suspect, and so the job of pointing out the incongruities of the script falls to a wizened theater critic to do so, risking the possibility of being greeted by mobs of angry townspeople brandishing pitchforks and torches in retaliation. There you have it, gentle readers, I've pointed out the particular challenge of producing Grease in the 21st century - do with it what you will.

If you are able to approach the production with an objective viewpoint, more power to you, for you are likely to see the merits of ACCC's revival and, moreover, to appreciate the efforts of Hunter and his creative team, which includes the fresh-faced cast of eager young actors who bring the characters from the fictional Rydell High School class of 1959 to life onstage.

Perhaps most notable among the cast is Braden Wahl, the young man who takes on the role of the aforementioned Mr. Zuko with ease, delivering a refreshing read of the character that makes him far more accessible and engaging than other Danny Zukos we've encountered over the past 40-some years he's been a part of the American musical theater canon. Wahl's confident performance, underscored with a sense of innocence (as if Danny's in on the joke that he's not the stud he's painted to be), ensures that he's a likable presence in any scene, elevating it with his confident charm and tremendous focus. Wahl leads the T-Birds, Zuko's clumsy "gang" of pals, with finesse while performing the character's musical numbers with requisite style and 1950s flair.

As Sandy, Kait Kloss makes the most of her time onstage to convincingly become the high school heroine her own considerable talents, leading the young women in the cast with her own sharply focused performance.

The chemistry between Kloss and Wahl is essential if audiences are to buy into the whole conceit of the play that centers on the notion that two high schoolers could share a summertime romantic romp only to find themselves attending the same high school for a shared senior year - and being involved in a series of misadventures that seem to drive them further apart - only to end up together at a drive-in movie. The date doesn't go well, of course (and why should we expect it to, considering Sandy and Danny have been at cross purposes up to that point) and when Sandy delivers a blow to Danny's manhood (pun intended), things go off on an even rockier course.

Kloss and Wahl are given able support in their efforts by a talented ensemble of young actors who are having the time of their lives: Daxton Patrick is terrific as Kenickie, putting his ample stage presence on display while threatening to steal the show right out from under the production's leads. He is paired well onstage with Alexis Alduenda as Betty Rizzo, the school's resident bad girl, who delivers two of the show's best known musical numbers, "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" and "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" with knowing, palpable grace and vigor.

Megan Castleberry shines as Frenchy, although the staging of "Beauty School Dropout" somehow relegates her to second (maybe even third or fourth) fiddle. As Marty, Grace DeGuzman delivers a torchy "Freddy, My Love," which gives her a much-deserved moment in the spotlight, and Alex Garrett is quite funny as the always hungry Jan.

As the other T-Birds, Zach Kelly is convincing as Doody (he makes certain "Those Magic Changes" is memorable); Gabriel Matos plays Roger with an awkwardness that somehow seems self-assured; and John House is fine as Sonny, even if it seems he's been left back a couple of years at RHS.

Rydell High's domineering Miss Lynch is played to the hilt by Cyndie Verbeten, while Catherine Burford excels as Patty Simcox and Andrew Neal is dweebishly effective as Eugene Florczyk. Jessica Hunter makes a welcome cameo as Teen Angel, warning Frenchy of the error of her ways, and Tyler Adams is good as disc jockey Vince Fontaine. And, as with almost every production of Grease we've ever seen (and we've probably seen 2,487 productions), the role of Cha Cha DiGregorio - the best girl dancer from St. Bernadette's - gives Sydney Sanford her own starring moments during "Born to Hand Jive" during the high school hop sequence.

Hunter does double-duty as choreographer and it is in that job that he truly shows off his own talents: the production's big musical numbers make grand use of the thrust staging at ACCC and his cast fills the space with loads of energy and sure-footed movement. That same thrust staging, however, almost proves to be Hunter's undoing - some scenes are blocked so that audiences seated to the sides of the playing area have difficult seeing the performers during certain, important moments in the show.

Grease. Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Hayes Hunter. Presented by The Arts Center of Cannon County, Woodbury. Running through July 21. For further information, go to www.artscenterofcc.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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