By Manning Harris
Serenbe Playhouse is starting its 2017 season with the legendary musical “Grease,” which will run through April 16.
It’s hard to believe that this show opened on Broadway in 1972—45 years ago; I believe that’s long enough to qualify as a legend. It became the longest running Broadway show, although its record has been broken. The 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was a gigantic hit; interestingly, high school kids today love the show and the score.
That may surprise you, but the secret of Grease’s success is the poignance, vulnerability, and innocence (that’s right) of teenagers; and they are still navigating the vagaries of peer pressure, politics, personal values and love. Styles change, but those quandaries don’t.
Young people rebel; and Serenbe Artistic Director Brian Clowdus has declared 2017 a Season of Rebellion. He says that a big reason for that decision was that he was looking for a way to shake loose from the phenomenal success of last year’s “Miss Saigon.” He also mentions the passing of his grandmother, a remarkable, strong woman, “my favorite rebel” (I read theatre programs).
You probably know that Serenbe is a site-specific, outdoor theatre. But I’ll bet you didn’t expect to become part of an eavesdropping, drive-in movie audience. However, this is “Grease’s” conceit in its nod to the late 1950’s. There’s even a gigantic movie screen upstage, behind the actors, with incredible lights, dancing, and images; here we must credit Bradley Bergeron for lighting and video design. There are also some vintage cars directly in front of the stage.
You also probably recall much of the plot, set at fabled Rydell High School, where Sandy (Randi Garza) meets her summer love Danny (Michael Stiggers Jr.) on the first day of school where principal Miss Lynch (Lala Cochran) is frantically trying to corral her young hormone-hopping charges into some semblance of order.
However, Danny, a leader of the very cool T-Birds, must not show his affection for Sandy publicly (it just wouldn’t be cool, man); and Sandy is quite crushed at his seeming indifference. In addition, Rizzo (Julissa Subino) and the Pink Ladies make fun of Sandy’s innocence (“Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”), and they are into “bad girl” stuff like cigarettes, wine, and even ear-piercing.
Sandy is befriended by the charmingly goofy Frenchy (Shelli Delgado—what a switch from her recent role as the prize villainess in Actor’s Express’ “The Crucible”), and Keneckie (Jeremiah Parker Hobbs), Danny’s best friend, delights in his new car (“Greased Lightnin’).
By the way TV/radio personality Brian Moote is Teen Angel (for selected performances); and TV journalist Paul Milliken plays Vince Fontaine. I have a feeling that director Brian Clowdus is a hard person to say “no” to.
This is a talented cast which includes India Tyree, Erik Poger Abrahamsen, Abigail Gabor, Brian Jordan, Shannon McCarren, Jacob McKee, Hayley Platt, Terrence Smith, Leo Thomasian, Bretteney Beverly, Brooke Bradley, Montgomery Davis, JD Myers, and Had Feng.
“Grease” is nowhere without its music and dancing. Music supervision is by Chris Brent Davis. I’m always taken aback at the flawless sound from the orchestra and vocalists at Serenbe; remember, we’re outdoors. Bubba Carr’s choreography snaps and crackles, as always.
Actor Randi Garza (Serenbe’s “Evita,” 2015) is a dynamic performer; she’s capable of more electricity than this role calls for (just so you know). Julissa Sabino (Aurora Theatre “In the Heights”) is perfectly cast as Rizzo, full of defiance and vulnerability at the same time.
By the way, the only problem with the big screen, which is dazzling, is that it tends to overshadow the actors, who because of the drive-in parking lot, are placed a bit far from the audience.
But the whole reason for “Grease” is fun, and you are virtually guaranteed to have a great time at this very large entertainment.
For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.