Sold-out ‘Grease’ packs Center Stage Theater

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Guests to Grease were welcomed with classic cars brought in by the Stray Angels car club.
Photo by Jason Bamburg

The musical, set in 1950s Chicago, has an abstract feel right down to the set design. “I wanted to honor ‘50s Chicago,” Director of Theater Stephanie Newman says. “These are kids who think they’re rock stars, but they’re just rough city folk.”

The show’s main characters, Danny and Sandy, met on the beach over summer break and fell in love, parting bitter-sweetly at summer’s end. Only they find Sandy has transferred into Danny’s school when fall semester starts. It’s a coincidence, but it reveals much about the social groups so many of us remember from our high school days.

Every generation has their own group of misfits who defy authority and come from less than upper-crust homes. Danny (played by Braydon Simmons) belongs to a gang who call themselves the “T-Birds,” in the social group known as “greasers” the “greaser in the future could be called the “stoners” today (whether they smoke pot or not) that we may be more familiar with.

Sandy (Madison Whittet), however, has just left a Catholic school and has yet to determine allegiances or fall in with a group, be they cheerleaders, the nerdy bookworms or “The Pink Ladies,” who are sort of the T-Bird’s auxiliary girls club.  She is pulled in these directions all at once, and the fact that Danny is both a jock and a greaser T-Bird doesn’t help Sandy’s indecision.

This is the classic struggle of the new kid; everybody wants to get to know you while simultaneously wanting to influence you. There is some measure of appeal in all of these newfound friends. She is certainly smart and shy enough to fit in with the brainy kids. Some unfamiliar extrovert inside may be calling her to cheer for the jocks (Danny is partially one), but the middle-finger raising audacity of the greaser culture (the other side of Danny) eventually wins out.

Sandy’s trajectory is easy to see when she is repeatedly tempted by cigarettes and alcohol (and the production centers around the rough kids). Rather than a female lead tapping into the sensitive side of the male – which was a common theme in the ‘70s— we have Sandy’s instant change into a sultry bad girl and likely the Pink Lady’s new leader.

Music director Michael Wheeler brought out great performances from the cast. Even the less seasoned vocalists among the cast could be forgiven a sour note here and there, as each and every song ended confidently and beautifully, whether by a single performer or a collective chorus. Wheeler must have emphasized the importance of a number’s ending to be spot-on.

Newman and her husband Travis were responsible for a spectacular set design, imagining her “abstract rather than detail” ‘50s vibe to great effect. Besides the subtle decoration of vinyl records and hanging guitars, the props (manipulated quietly by the cast themselves) included moving sections that served as settings for the beach, Rydell High School’s entrance, the gym, the cafeteria, “The Burger Palace,” the local drive-in movie, and Kenickie’s garage.

Kenickie, played by Ben Ruggles, could be said to be the de facto leader of the T-birds, if only because he has a “new” used car, and believes some work will transform it into racer and a “chick magnet.” The prop involved is the front end of a rusty Ford pickup on a rolling platform. This car is used in a few scenes but is most enjoyed as the centerpiece of a daydream sequence in which Kinickie imagines his car’s future, and the transformation is executed with a custom drop-on shroud of shiny fabric that makes the car look finished, bringing the song “Greased Lightning” to life.

The musical, created by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, first appeared at Chicago’s Kingston Mines nightclub in 1971 and ended its first Broadway run in 1980. At that time, it had the honor of being the longest run in Broadway’s history with 3,388 total shows. The 1978 film adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia-Newton John was also massively successful, earning nearly $9 million on its opening weekend. One might think such an iconic and critically acclaimed show would be showcased in a larger venue, but the UCC theater program makes use of the Center Stage Theater (rather than the larger Jacoby on campus) for many reasons. Among them is the immediacy and proximity to the stage. “In the Center Stage, every seat is a good seat,” Newman says.

A larger space would also call for much more audio and lighting responsibilities, and Newman likes both to be as natural as possible. “It is important to learn how to fill a space with your voice,” she says, “my focus is on process and students more than a product.”

In this ethic, however, Newman and her incredible team have created an understandably sold-out production.

Though “Grease” is officially over after its highly successful run, the Theater Arts program will offer “The Lion in Winter,” starring Newman herself next. “It’s Game of Thrones-esque with British humor,” she says.

“The Lion In Winter” runs February 23 – March 11 and tickets are available at the Whipple Fine Arts Building or online at tickets.umpqua.edu