Sunday, March 19, 2017

Grease is Hot as Lightning

The beloved classic feels fresher than ever in a new staging at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Photo by Dan Norman.

What's full of black leather, shiny cars, sizzling tunes and a full frontal spoof of the 1950s?

Why that would be Grease, fully revitalized and hanging out at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's main stage until October 28.

Photo by Dan Norman.

For anyone born after Grease debuted on Broadway in 1972 who has been living under a rock, here's a synopsis: Grease follows a troupe of too-cool-for school gangs, the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds, through their senior year at Rydell High School. The story focuses particularly on Sandy, a new goody-two-shoes, and Danny, Rydell's resident bad boy, as they navigate peer pressure after a summer of innocent love. Their friends, featuring ribald Rizzo and Kenickie; overweight but loveable Jan and Roger; 16 going on 36 Marty; and ill fated Frenchy, Doody and the Burger Palace Boys; are also navigating their own transition to adulthood with varying degrees of success. The music and plot entirely center on spoofing the ridiculously wholesome facade the 1950s painted over itself and allows the characters to dive into some surprisingly deep themes, including teen pregnancy, slut shaming, choosing between violence and your reputation, managing addiction and general societal expectations.

Photo by Dan Norman.

Grease is most famous of course for the film version in 1978 starring Olivia Newton John and John Travolta (the highest grossing movie musical), as well as recent iterations including a live version staged on NBC a couple of years ago. I have to say that as much as I enjoyed those renditions, this live version gives the films a definite run for their money. There are some key differences; for example, there is no car race as in the film's famous rumble scene at the end of the movie; many of the more nuanced interactions with Sandy and the pink ladies have been removed; and a lot of the fluff in the story has been eschewed for a lean, streamlined performance (that runs under two hours without an intermission!). I *really* like this pared down version and the clippy speed with which it progressed, but if you're devoted to the film just note that there will be differences.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The cast is wonderful, and one of the best things about this restructured plot is that each person gets a chance to shine rather than having such a heavy focus solely on Danny and Sandy's relationship. Starring as Danny and Sandy are Aleks Knezevich and Caroline Innerbicheler, respectively. Both have a charming chemistry and gorgeous vocals. Innerbicheler absolutely owns her performance of "Hopelessly Devoted to You," and Knezevich has a Travolta twitch in his hips that will keep you giggling throughout the show. Their opening rendition of "Summer Nights" is a knockout. Other great pairs include Evan Tyler Wilson and Therese Walth as Roger and Jan who have a hilarious (but poignant) moment with "Mooning." Although the song is silly, their vocals are seriously incredible, and Wilson's lyrical Irish tenor is a gorgeous companion to Walth's spunky harmonies. "Mooning" was one of my favorite pieces from the show and I'd love to see it again.

Photo by Dan Norman.

Ruthanne Heyward is much darker than we're used to seeing her as Rizzo; Heyward brings a much more adult, jaded attitude than what we've seen from her in previous turns at CDT as Belle, and the sober tenor really suits her. She brings a heavy (and literal) tear to "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" and lends a necessary serious note to the whole production. Ben Bakken is fully in the James Dean attitude as Kenickie, and he has a fabulous version of "Greased Lightning" that gets him literally swinging from the stage. Keith Rice's dulcet tones serenade the audience throughout scene changes as radio maven Vince Fontaine, and it's a fabulous place for his rich voice. And Shinah Brashears is thoroughly winning as Frenchy, the ill fated beauty school dropout with easter egg colored hair.

Photo by Dan Norman.

Speaking of beauty school dropouts, I'd be amiss not to mention the show-stealing, go-for-this-one-performance-only drop-dead antics of Kasano Mwanza as the Teen Angel who serenades Frenchy with "Beauty School Dropout." Long the bane of the film for me, I didn't expect much of  this number, but Mwanza exceeds every possible expectation in his role, strutting out with flappable wings and a Prince-meets-Ru Paul attitude that sells the shit out of the whole song. I've never thought of the piece with such a snarky attitude, and it's a glorious show stopper for act two. Mwanza also anchors a rich rendition of the flagship "Grease Is The Word" song to close the show. I know he has a side career as a musician and other things to do, but Kasano, PLEASE: come sing in every local production of everything, ever. (Yes, I realize what hysteria that sounds like but I can't emphasize enough: this is a very, very talented young man. Go watch. You'll have zero regrets).

Photo by Dan Norman.

Grease has never been a favorite show of mine, but I really enjoyed this new production at CDT. It's sharp, it's smart, it's short, and the cast is immeasurably talented. Please note that this is not a show for little kids; there are lots of adult themes and language, and they won't be watered down. But that's all the better; take your partner on a fun date night for dinner, drinks, and an (excellent) show and be back home in less than three hours from start to finish. I would happily re-watch this production at any time, and I may do just that; there's plenty of time to go since it runs through October 28. Go like Greased Lightning to get your tickets as I'm sure this will be a top seller. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.