Musical Theatre West’s new production of the musical “Grease” will have you hand-jiving in your seat with its dynamic singing and dancing. Rydell High’s plucky teens—Danny, Sandy, Kenickie, Rizzo and their T-Bird and Pink Lady friends —navigate cliques, summer crushes, sleepovers, a school dance contest, stolen hubcaps, and even a possible pregnancy.
Director Snehal Desai assembled a diverse cast to keep this original 1971 musical, and the 1978 hit film based on it, “timely and relevant,” as he recently told LA Theatrix.
While the story—slightly changed from the film—is delightful, it’s the singing and dancing that allow this production to soar. Not only are the ensemble numbers energetic and harmonious but each of the solos is pitch-perfect as well.
Monika Peña as Sandy has more than one song on her own—“It’s Raining on Prom Night,” “Hopelessly Devoted,” and “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Reprise)”—and shines in each, her voice capturing the sweet strength and trepidation of a young girl learning to make her own decisions.
Isa Briones as tough-girl Rizzo displays similar strength with her soulful “There are Worse Things I Could Do” following a pregnancy scare, having already entertained her friends with her mocking “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” about Sandy as a goody two-shoes.
And Jonah Ho’okano as Danny’s heartfelt “Sandy”—after she leaves him stranded at a drive-in movie—expresses well his teenage boy’s uncertainty, both about what to do with his feelings for her and how to handle the gossip about him “Monday at school.”
It’s the songs, and especially the solos, that allow us to feel the anxiety of high schoolers in any time period—especially the importance of having a place among their peers, almost like a security blanket as they grow into adults—captured in the peppy ensemble number, “We Go Together,” that ends both acts with the lyrics, “We’ll always be like one.”
There are also surprise performances, such as Doody (Kris Bona) fiddling with a simple tune on his ukulele that morphs into a lovely “Those Magic Changes.” Janaya Mahealani Jones is similarly animated in her sparkly glasses as Marty, singing about “Freddy, My Love,” a young military man with whom she corresponds, portrayed in the song by her teddy bear come to life.
And Darius Rose as the Teen Angel makes up for anything his voice leaves out of “Beauty School Dropout” with both glamour and attitude—glamitude, perhaps—haughtily posing his sleek legs while convincing Frenchy (Aurelia Michael-Holmgren) to go back to high school. Rose noted before the show that he invented a backstory of Frenchy going to underground drag shows during beauty school, “So her vision of Teen Angel just happens to be a fabulous drag queen!”
Rose is also a joy as teacher Miss Lynch, keeping order in the locker-filled hallways and getting hot and bothered after dancing with television star Vince Fontaine (Quintan Craig) during the school sock-hop.
Singing and dancing go together (“like rama lama lama…,” as per a song) and choreography by C. Wright hits every mark for energy, fluidity and sheer fun, especially showcased during the school dance. “Shakin’ at the High School Hop” has couples performing in the aisles as well as on stage with fast-paced ‘50s style moves.
And a basic cheerleading routine bursts into hip-hop drill dancing during the “Rydell Fight Song,” featuring ultimate perky cheerleader Patty (Devan Watring, channeling Legally Blonde’s Elle). Costumes by Tamara Becker work well with all the choreography, allowing the girls to twirl in fluffy skirts and boys to strut in rolled-up jeans and leather jackets.
A lively band consisting of sax, bass, guitar and drums led by Music Director Jan Roper brings to melodious life other familiar songs from the film, including “Greased Lightnin’,” “Summer Nights,” “Born to Hand-Jive” and “You’re the One That I Want.”
Though the plot sometimes seems to jump, moving rather quickly at times from song to song, this colorful production of “Grease”—and especially its buoyant and talented cast—will raise your spirits with its exuberance. Miss Lynch would give it an A+.
Musical Theatre West’s “Grease” continues through July 24 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, 6200 E Atherton St., Long Beach, with shows Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. (and 6:00 p.m. on July 17). Tickets range from $20 to $96 and can be purchased by calling the MTW box office at (562) 856-1999 or visiting its website, Musical.org.