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BWW Review: GREASE at Desert Theatreworks


BWW Review: GREASE at Desert Theatreworks

Grease is still the word! Since its first appearance in 1971, Grease has become an indelible element of American culture. Indio's Desert Theatreworks has assembled a dozen of the valley's top young actors who have brought such an amazing level of talent, hard work, and enthusiasm to the show that it feels as if it had been written last week. I dare you to keep your toes from tapping!

The structure of Grease is closer to a revue than a play. There's a continuing thread as to whether Danny (Adam Genesta) and Sandy (Phylicia Mason) will ever get together - and we're pretty sure from the first moment that they will - but the evening is mostly a series of vignettes celebrating iconic images of the 50's, the era of "greasers." There's the guys working on a car in auto shop, the girls sharing secrets at a slumber party, and the school dance where couples are swapped and hearts are broken, but the scenes and especially the songs are a reverential revisiting of a simpler time in recent history. Well, fairly recent history. It dawned on me that these kids were revisiting the youth of their grandparents, not their parents, but with the original Broadway production setting a then-record run, the Travolta/Newton-John movie being one of the highest-grossing movie musicals of all time, numerous revivals and tours on stage, plus productions at schools and community theatres around the world, virtually every young actor knows the names Sandy, Danny, Kenickie, Rizzo, etc., and dreams of the opportunity of putting their own stamp on the characters. I understand the auditions were swamped, and the competition was fierce.

The resulting cast was uniformly stellar. Their energy level left the audience exhausted as they swung and flipped through one high-spirited dance number after another, brilliantly compressed for the modestly sized stage by the company's resident choreographer, Heidi Hapner. The voices were great, despite the fact that many of the cast members were ill on opening weekend. A special delight was Phylicia Mason's Sandy. I sometimes wonder if this young actress is cloned; she seems to appear everywhere, both as comedic and dramatic actress, director, and now powerhouse singer. Adam Genesta's Danny still showed the basics of his terrific voice as he sang over a cold on the opening weekend, but his character could have shown a bit more aloofness and swagger. The main reason Danny doesn't claim Sandy immediately is because he doesn't want to appear uncool in front of his buddies, but Genesta is a smiley nice guy from the git-go, so his motivations are less clear.

What a luxury to use valley favorites Alisha Bates and Shafik Wahhab as the cigarette smoking tough broad Rizzo and the motorhead wise guy Kenicke. Their characters, voices, and song presentation skills are rock solid and of fully professional level. Special notice also goes to Stephen Blackwell as the smarmy Vince Fontain, Shirley LeMaster as the token teacher, Ms. Lynch, and Lee Padick as the nerdy Eugene. The revue structure of the show also gives spotlight moments to virtually every member of the cast, including James Owens, Heidi Hapner, Christine Michele, Coco Girelli, Darla Decker, Ryan Holmes, Miguel Arballo, Billy Franco, and Leslye Martinez.

Set designers Jim O'Keefe and Alan Jensen have used a variety of levels to handle crowds on the matchbook stage, and bedecked most surfaces with dozens of vinyl LP's. Phil Murphy's lighting, Miguel Arballo's sound, Heidi Hapner's costumes, and Art Healy's wigs and make-up keep us focused and in the right period, with Tresa Oden, Michelle Mendoza, Cecilia de la Torre, Maddox Martinez and David Reyes rounding out the crew. Top marks go to director Lance Phillips-Martinez and musical director Donald Kelley for the unflagging energy and uniform vocal quality of the entire production.

When Desert Theatreworks moved from Palm Desert to Indio last year, there was some concern that their audience might not follow. This year has shown that there was no need for concern. The Indio Performing Arts Center (IPAC) has provided the audiences with more comfortable seating, with specific seats reserved in advance, and the multi-venue building has the buzz of a theatrical factory, sometimes with three different productions in rehearsal or performance at the same time. But be sure to book early - numerous performances have sold out, and Grease has proven to be their most successful production to date.

The company rounds out their 2017/2018 season with the comedy Jewtopia, playing April 19 - 29. Tickets and further information are available at, or by phoning 760-980-1455.

Photo by Paul Hayashi

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