GREASE and the Frivolous, Fifties -- At Summer Theatre of New Canaan
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
Currently rocking the stage under the all-weather tent is Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s (STONC) revival of the original production of “Grease,” a high school musical about teenagers during the 1950’s. The award-winning show, with book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, played on Broadway for about seven years during the 1970’s. It was also made into a film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Considering how often the stage show has been revived and the movie has been featured on TV, it’s hard to find someone who has not seen some version of “Grease” or participated in it during high school.
You may be surprised to learn that STONC’s Artistic Director, Melody Libonati, who performed in the original, Broadway show, directs a version of “Grease” that is slightly different than the usual revivals. As she states in her program notes, her goal was to "direct the show as I remember the original production and its original intentions.” She gives credit to Tom Moore and Pat Birch, the original director and choreographer for their research into the period and “...hopes to capture with honesty, the exuberance of the 50’s.” Talking from this writer’s personal experience, Libonati succeeded quite nicely.
For the benefit of the younger crowd, a little history may be in order here:
Some of our older senior citizens were fortunate to have attended high school during a rare, carefree period between wars. World War II ended in 1945, the economy quickly rose, and average folks were beginning to afford the luxuries that the 1939 N.Y. World’s Fair had predicted. High school kids felt safe and secure and were still doing their parents’ “Lindy Hop” and the slow, romantic, “Fox Trot.”
By the time the 50’s rolled in, a new group of kids, untouched by the horrors of war, entered high school. Not much interested in politics or news about the far away Korean War, teenagers tuned into the new “Rock and Roll” craze. They enjoyed group dances like the “Twist” and the childlike “Bunny Hop,” and developed a separate culture from their parents. The trend spread like an epidemic, and “Grease’s” Rydell High School was a typical example of most public high schools during that period.
As depicted in the “Pajama Party” scene and the song, “Freddie My Love,” “Marty,” wrapped in the Kimono that her overseas, marine boyfriend sent, is not very concerned about him. In the teenage mind, uppermost in importance was gaining social acceptance, being popular with the opposite sex, and finding ways to have fun. Drugs had not yet taken hold but there was smoking and drinking among the “fast crowd.” Whether you lived in the city or the suburbs, the ultimate joy was an old, fixable car (like Greased Lightnin”) or knowing someone that had one. As a result of the unique 50’s, American teenagers were probably the most fun-loving, naive generation in our history.
STONC’s production of “Grease” differs in its scene sequences. It opens with a class reunion and “... three cheers for Rydell High School rather than the usual duet, “Summer Nights” which focuses attention on gang-member “Danny” (Christian Libonati), and the naive “Sandy” (Sharon Malane). The couple met during school vacation and in their minds, they reminisce about their wonderful summer and their attraction towards each other. When they bump into each other again at school, misunderstandings and jealous discord among their friends ensue. Aside from several sub-plots, teenagers during the ‘50’s are essentially what this show is about.
Christian Libonati sings, acts, and adapts the appropriate hip grinding and swagger of the period. We especially enjoyed his exaggerated, greasy, hair combing and other 50’s mannerisms Don’t miss his dramatic final stance -- it resembles John Travolta’s “Stayin’ Alive” pose.
Sharon Malane, who played the head nurse in STONC’s last show, “South Pacific,” is a fine Sandy with a sweet voice to match. Her lament, “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” is as smooth and delicious as custard on a cone.
We have a typical, baby-doll, pajama party scene with “Freddy My Love,” sung by a longing, Elysia Jordan. There’s some horsing around with “Kenickie’s” (Dan Farber) old car, “Greased Lightnin’, plus ” a little “Mooning” fun between Jennifer Ambler and Matt Spano (a rambunctious scene that’s often left out). Teenage insecurity, intrigue and insult takes place at the “High School Hop” when cheerleader “Patty” (Grace Hardin) becomes an annoying, subject of embarrassment to Danny and the aggressive, heavy-set “Cha-Cha” (Jenni Joefree) pushes her way towards him like a giant, yellow school-bus. There are a couple of “Pink Ladies” who have personal troubles of their own which prompts the song sequence “Beauty School Dropout.” This scene is very amusingly performed by Sarah Mullis as “Frenchy” and the heavenly beauty parlor girls, while Adam Hill takes the spotlight as the marvelous, “Teen Angel.”
“There are Worse Things I could Do” is an emotional highlight offered by a knocked up -- knock out Pink Lady, Cristina Farruggia, who gives one of the best “Rizzo” performances we’ve seen. Additional scenes resolve everyone’s conflicts and result in the group Finale, “We Go Together.” The word “Togetherness” should be highlighted because the emphasis of the show seems to be on a group of teenagers during this unique period of time -- not its individual characters.
Costume Designer, Sarah Cogan, and Set Designer Julia Noulin-Merat, certainly did their research. In fact, when Sandy came onstage in a green, one-piece gym suit that featured short shorts, chuckles were emitted by women in the audience who probably recalled how they despised the ugly outfits they had to wear in high school. These obnoxious gym suits had finally changed from the unbecoming bloomers (everyone hiked up the elastic bottoms anyway) to the more sexy shorts. Only clever, women designers would pick that funny detail up -- possibly from the same Year Book that the class photos (which decorated the stage sides) came from.
After STONC’s official opening night, something very special occurred. Several original cast members were called up to the stage and told anecdotes about their personal experiences with the show. We learned that the original production was quite raunchy and the performers had to know two versions. The cleaned up version was “...fit for Queen Elizabeth when she viewed it.” However, when touring the Bible-belt, and the cast was suddenly required to switch from the script they were accustomed to -- you can imagine the amusing mistakes that occurred after you've seen the show. Relating those details here and now would be giving away this show’s surprises.
You will certainly enjoy “Grease” and the authentic spirit of the frivolous Fifties offered by Summer Theatre of New Canaan. Parental guidance may be warranted for pre-teens.
Plays to August 11
Tickets: 203 966-4634
This review appears in “ON CT&NY THEATRE” August/2013