The American classic
Local production of beloved musical softens hard-hearted critic
Americans—both regular theatergoers and non—love Grease. This was apparent upon arriving at Chico Theater Company on Saturday (Jan. 11) and seeing a 20-something couple literally skipping, arm in arm, to the front door for the theater’s opening-night performance of the play.
Indeed, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1971 musical may be the best-loved work of American theater ever, largely due to the blockbuster 1978 film adaptation and accompanying soundtrack starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John as lead lovers Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski (whose last name was changed to Olsson in the film version). I can’t imagine anyone skipping to a showing of Romeo and Juliet, but Grease—with its 1950s nostalgia filtered through 1970s camp and set to incredibly catchy (and kitschy) tunes—regularly inspires such excitement, even from people born well past either decade the play serves to represent. Indeed, this is the CTC’s second time producing the play in its 10-year history, and its 2007 production was the theater’s highest-grossing outing ever.
I used to love Grease, too, so much so that some friends and I auditioned for our high school’s production of the play during my senior year. We weren’t part of the regular drama crowd, but fancied ourselves real-life juvenile delinquents, knew most of the songs by heart, and already owned the leather motorcycle jackets that would complete our transition into T-Birds—the play’s band of ne’er-do-well greasers.
But by the time the final curtain fell, I’d grown to despise every line from every song—from the first “Tell me more” to the final “wop ba-ba lu-bop and wop bam boom.” Painful daily run-throughs reminded me that even the show’s driving plot of regaining love lost is beholden to the fact that Zuko, the main male protagonist, is a total jerk obsessed with peer pressure. Grease lost its nostalgic luster for me, and I began to see it solely as a paean to the inherent obnoxiousness of teenagers. And as a teenager myself, I, of course, hated other teenagers.
Two decades is long enough to hold a grudge against a theatrical work, so I committed to watching the CTC’s production with fresh, unbiased eyes. And, in spite of myself, I actually enjoyed it.
To assemble the play’s cast—the T-Birds, their female counterparts the Pink Ladies, and the rest of the students and faculty of Rydell High—the CTC drew from a wide range of the community’s theatrical talent, from high-schoolers to seasoned veterans. Short bios in the program revealed that Mia Coleman, who plays Pink Lady Jan, is a student at Bidwell Junior High School; Tia Watkins, who plays goody-goody Patty Simcox, is only 14; and Dylan Henson, as the dorky Eugene Florczyk, will turn 15 during the play’s month-long run. These younger players hold their own with the more august actors, and Coleman was particularly endearing as Jan—a Pink Lady who struggles with awkwardness, body issues and a blossoming love affair with T-Bird Roger (entertainingly brought to life by Zach Valdez).
Rounding out the T-Birds with solid performances were J.D. Amaral, Tino Topete and Thomas Billheimer III (Kenicke, Sonny and Doody, respectively). Amaral’s dancing during “Greased Lightnin’” was a definite highlight.
Also excellent were the rest of the Pink Ladies—Frenchy, Marty and tough-as-nails Rizzo (played by Ashley Garlick, Karissa Matlock and Kaila Davidson). Most of the smaller roles get spotlight songs, which the players all handled well. Sierra Hall and Joel Ibanez shined as leads Sandy and Danny.
The CTC’s stage set for the play was rather sparse: a black box with the play’s ubiquitous logo featured prominently on the back wall, and simple props like park benches used to effectively form a broad range of settings.
My one major gripe with the play is the use of canned background music over that of a live band, which could have taken the already high-energy production to the next level. Other than that, the CTC helped me exorcise my inner angry teenager and enjoy something I’d loved long ago. For rabid Grease fans or those who’ve never seen the story play out live, it’s well worth the price of admission.