Leather jackets, pompadours, bobby socks – UMaine’s Hauck Auditorium stage is rife with these and other symbols of youth in the 1950s. And yes – that includes rock and roll. The School of Performing Arts is presenting their production of the musical “Grease” through Feb. 23.
It’s remarkable to think that “Grease” is over 40 years old at this point - the show was created by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey back in 1971. And yet, despite the fact that we in 2014 are four times farther removed from that 1950s setting than audiences for that original production, the show still resonates.
The action revolves around Sandy (Hope Celeste Milne) and Danny (Ira Kramer), a pair whose summer romance was supposed to end with the start of the school year. To their surprise, they wind up at Rydell High together – and it turns out that Danny hasn’t been totally forthright with Sandy. He greatly exaggerates the details of their summer tryst to his leather jacket-clad buddies - the tough-but-tender Kenickie (Andy Cotterly); the naïve wannabe rock star Doody (Andrew Silver); the smart aleck wise guy Sonny (Brandon Clark); and the merry prankster Roger (Brogan Kelley).
Sandy, on the other hand, has fallen in with a group of girls known as the Pink Ladies, a gang led by the tough-talking, no-nonsense Rizzo (Allisen Donovan). The rest of the group consists of aspiring cosmetologist Frenchy (Jessica Rogers), boy-crazy beauty Marty (Goldie Irvine) and the sweetly awkward Jan (Nellie Kelly). The Pink Ladies get a very different version of Sandy and Danny’s summer love.
We watch as these young people struggle simultaneously to fit in and to break out. Each of them deals with conflicting wants and needs; they desire closeness, yet can’t show vulnerability for fear of losing ground in the face-saving rat race that is high school. They’re maneuvering through adolescence without a map. Danny and Sandy swing into and out of one another’s orbits as they – and their friends – look for love.
And lest we forget: they’re singing and dancing all the while.
There’s an energy that is necessary for “Grease” to work. And there’s an edge to the show that often gets overlooked; some fairly serious ideas, particularly for the time, are addressed. This production lets the audience in on that edge, and the joyful dynamics of the cast make the journey one worth taking.
Kramer is game for anything as Danny, bounding around the stage with unceasing energy and putting his stamp on each note and every step. He’s not afraid to go broad, but still manages to reel it in when necessary. Milne’s voice is absolutely beautiful – her turn on “Hopelessly Devoted” is particularly lovely, but she’s great throughout. She simply radiates innocence, making her late turn that much more effective. And the two of them together are a treat; they manage to inject life into a “will they/won’t they” to which we all already know the answer.
Kenickie and Rizzo are both real workhorse roles; they do a lot of the show’s heavy lifting, yet never quite get the same love as Danny and Sandy. Cotterly and Donovan throw themselves headlong into their roles, carving out a relationship onstage that never once rings false; both do fine work in letting tenderness shine through tough-talking veneers.
Whether it was Silver’s poised physicality or the overwrought sensuality of Irvine’s Marty, Clark’s spot-on reactive comedic timing or the brisk breadth of Rogers’ Frenchy or the sweetly engaging give-and-take between Kelley’s Roger and Kelly’s Jan – not to mention the too-numerous-to-list minute moments of detail presented by the rest of the ensemble – the cast consistently came together in such a way as to truly fill the halls of Rydell High with snapshots of high school life that were delightful to see.
One of the hallmarks of director Sandra Hardy’s work is that sense of ensemble fullness; she goes out of her way to create a rich stage picture. Everyone is always so engaged – no matter where you look or who you look at, you’ll see something that contributes to the scene. Those seemingly inconspicuous moments on the margins matter; every one of those actors needs to be proud of the work that they are doing.
Music director Danny Williams offers up his usual excellent work, bringing together a talented group of musicians and turning them into a tight pit ensemble; they give the singers an exquisite vehicle to drive – their very own auditory Greased Lightning. Choreographer Jasmine Ireland has filled the stage with some well-executed and elaborate movements. Set designer Dan Bilodeau and lighting designer Adam Mendelson have created a multi-level, multi-purpose space that offers both aesthetic appeal and flexibility.
There’s a reason “Grease” remains such a popular show after so many years. While the details of the world continue to change, certain basic truths will always remain the same. Being a teenager is always going to present difficulties – difficulties unlike those faced at any other time in life. The things that are important in high school – even the little things - are always going to feel monumentally important. And teenagers will always love their friends fiercely and purely – even if they don’t quite know how to express that love.