The 1978 movie “Grease” nostalgically hearkens back to high school 20 years earlier during the sock-hoppin’ 1950s. Musical Theatre West’s (MTW) new version of “Grease”—scheduled to run from July 8 to 24—first begins in 2022 before warping back nearly 70 years to the ‘50s, creating a more diverse Rydell High along the way.
Director Snehal Desai, who is also artistic director of East West Players in Los Angeles—the nation’s largest and longest running Asian American Theater—says MTW’s staging revisits “Grease” through a “contemporary lens,” especially in terms of race.
“When we think of 1950s America, the images that come to mind are not inclusive of communities of color, which were also prominently here, particularly in Southern California,” Desai told LA Theatrix.
Reflecting Southern California’s diversity—and particularly that of Long Beach, MTW’s home—was also important to MTW Executive Director Paul Garman.
“One of the exciting prospects in choosing this show three years ago was to model our ‘Rydell
High’ after Wilson High School, across from our offices in Long Beach,” Garman said, “We knew our production of ‘Grease’ should mirror our community in the same way.”
The lead roles feature actors of color Jonah Ho'okano as “greaser” Danny Zuko and Monika Peña as new good-girl Sandy Dumbrowski.
“The rest of Rydell High’s senior class of 1959 will represent the welcoming, melting-pot community of Long Beach,” MTW said in a press release.
The cast of 20 also includes Darius Rose—known as drag queen Jackie Cox, who starred in season 12 of television’s “RuPaul's Drag Race”—as one of the teachers, Miss Lynch, and also as the dreamlike Teen Angel singing “Beauty School Dropout.”
“Drag was underground in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but it certainly existed,” Rose said. “In the way I see my Teen Angel, I’ve come up with a backstory where Frenchie met some queer people in beauty school who introduced her to whatever underground drag shows are happening near Rydell. So her vision of Teen Angel just happens to be a fabulous drag queen!”
The show keeps the film’s high school cliques—including the T-Birds and Pink Ladies—and its iconic songs like “Greased Lightnin’,” “Summer Nights,” “It’s Raining on Prom Night” and “Sandy.” Among other accomplishments, Music Director Jan Roper won the 2020 Raise Your Voice Award for diversity and inclusion for her work-in-progress, “América Tropical.”
MTW’s “Grease” is choregraphed by Corey Wright and will showcase “50 years of dance and fashion evolution,” according to MTW.
“The contemporary cast of characters will step and swing their way back to 1959 to present audiences with a version of the era that includes people who were not positively represented in popular culture at that time,” MTW said.
Director Desai said he believes that a classic like “Grease”—with its original book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey—will speak to today’s audiences.
“It can be revisited through the times we are in and still feel timely and relevant,” Desai said. “’Grease’ is also just a great iconic musical with memorable songs and—particularly in our production—eye-popping choreography and out-of-this-world vocals.”
Musical Theatre West’s “Grease” will run from July 8 to 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.