You know from the great-big boy-band/girl-group/cast-of-thirty title-song production number that opens USC’s revival of the Broadway/Hollywood smash Grease that you’re in for something out of the ordinary, and here’s the even better news. USC’s big-stage production turns out to be by far the most exciting of the eight Grease revivals I’ve seen.
Not only does this Grease feature each and every musical number from the Broadway original, it mixes in all three songs written specifically for the 1978 movie adaptation: “Grease,” “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” and “You’re The One That I Want.” Add to that a cast of thirty (as opposed to the usual sixteen) and virtually every song turns into a major production number choreographed by none other than Broadway vet/SoCal superstar Dana Solimando.
As for USC’s directorial choice for this year’s annual big-stage musical, they don’t come any more gifted or inventive than Jeff Maynard, like Solimando one of La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts’ premier talents, and joining forces with one of the country’s finest Schools Of Dramatic Arts, the dynamic duo give L.A. audiences the best Bing Theatre musical of the six now reviewed on this website.
It helps that virtually every character in Grease is only two or three years younger than the supremely talented cast assembled for this revival, giving this Grease as professional an air as you’ll ever see in a college production. (No old-age makeup or prematurely grayed hair required this time round.)
Each and every cast member brings his or her unique talents to roles first created by book, music, and lyric writers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey way back in 1971.
These now iconic characters include:
• Danny (Austin Humble), undisputed leader of the Burger Palace Boys and the coolest, hottest hotshot at Rydell High, and Sandy (Sidne Phillips), wholesome girl-next-door transfer student, whose first post-vacation campus encounter with Danny leads her to believe that their recent romance may have been a case of “Summer Loving” and nothing more.
• Kenicke (Jackson White), Danny’s smart-alecky sidekick; Doody (Kalev Rudolph), the hero-worshiping youngest of the Burger Boys; Sonny (Geoffrey Katz), the gang’s resident Italian Wise Guy and self-described lady-killer; and Roger (Andrew Acosta), Rydell class clown nicknamed “Rump” for his habit of “Mooning” on a Saturday night.
• Betty Rizzo, aka Rizzo (Perry Mattfeld), Rydell’s baddest bad girl, Kenicke’s steady, and the Pink Ladys’ undisputed queen bee; Frenchy (Bella Hicks), Rydell High and Beauty School dropout, who naively assumes she got her nickname by “French inhaling” cigarette smoke; Marty (Selene Klasner), the Pink Ladies’ resident glamour girl with a thing for “older” men like sleazy radio DJ Vince Fontaine (Erik Hu); and Jan (Sami Nye), the cuddliest—and most excitable—Pink Lady at Rydell High.
Easily hoodwinked nerd Eugene Florczyk (Tucker Aust) and overachieving cheerleader Patty Simcox (Shefali Deshpande) are allso prominently featured, with English teacher Miss Lynch (Allison Aoun) standing in for all the Rydell High adults.
Not to be forgotten are Cha-Cha Gregorio (Sarah Fanella), dance champ at rival Catholic high school St. Bernadette’s; Teen Angel (Carter Shults), who pops into Frenchy’s dreams to serenade her with “Beauty School Dropout”; and Born-To-Hand-Jive (Baby) Johnny Casino (Patrick Olsen).
Danny Zukos don’t get any hunkier than a stand-out Humble, who captures not only Danny’s swagger but his ah-shucks charm as well.
As for Phillips’ Sandy, the USC freshman is so Catholic-school-girl sweet and innocent that her “All Choked Up” transformation proves as astonishing as transformations get, and her gorgeous-voiced “Hopelessly Devoted To You” will erase memories of any Olivia who might have sung it before.
A couple of USC Musical Theatre Repertory favorites do particularly splendid work. Rudolph transitions from his heartbreakingly real Floyd Collins and his charmingly quirky Jack (of Into The Woods) to Grease’s boyishly appealing Doody, whose partner in mischief, “Beauty School Dropout” Frenchy, is brought to vivacious life by the delightful Hicks, Merrily We Roll Along’s glamorous Gussie and Into The Woods’ divalicious Witch. Talk about versatility. These two Trojans have it in spades.
White makes for as spunky/sassy a Kenickie as you could ever hope to see, and his Rizzo, the stunningly statuesque Mattfeld, combines cover-girl beauty, tough-chick bravado, and adolescent vulnerability to star-making effect.
I absolutely loved Katz’s infectiously peppy take on self-proclaimed Casanova Sonny, and Klasner is equally appealing as pseudo-sophisticated Marty, who charms the pants off of slick radio DJ Vince Fontaine (a terrific Hu), or would if Grease took their prom flirtation a few steps further.
Acosta is a mischief-making scene-stealer as class clown Roger (and moons with the best of them) and Jans don’t get any bubblier than the fabulous Nye.
Deshpande reinvents go-getter Patty Simcox as a borderline psycho overachiever, resulting in the most memorable Patty I’ve seen. Aust has great fun (and the audience with him) as class nerd Eugene, who’d be a lot less sexually confused had he been born a few decades later.
Cameo roles could not be better filled than they are by an amusingly prim-and-proper Aoun as Miss Lynch, a deliciously raunchy Fanella as Cha Cha, rock-n-roll-party-king Olsen as Rydell heartthrob Johnny Casino, and above all by Shults’ heavenly, velvet-voiced Teen Angel, as memorable here as in Into The Woods.
As for the ensemble, the triple-threat-tastic Clint Blakely (Hero), Sandy Ellis, Fanella, Sabrina Fest, Hu, Carson Klasner, Marlee Learner, Rebecca Mellinger (Sheila), Taubert Nadalini, Olsen, dance captain Carlye Porrazzo, Aubrey Rhodes, Shults, Addy Stafford, Robert Lee Terry (Scientist), Sophie Thomason, and Patrick Wallace not only get the song-and-dance workout of their lives, each one has clearly created his or her own back story worthy of audience notice.
With its two-dozen-and-a-half cast members, rarely if ever has a Grease revival given audiences as broad a spectrum of Rydell High students to ooh and aah at, and choreographer Solimando takes full advantage of them all.
In production number after production number, including the now iconic “We Go Together,” “Greased Lighting,” “Born To Hand Jive,” “All Choked Up,” and “You’re The One That I Want,” Solimando may start off with a mere eight or ten principals, but before long, she’s got the whole school a-rockin’ and a-rollin’ for the most infectiously high-energy song-and-dance sequences you could ever hope to see in a Grease revival.
Musical director Parmer Fuller conducts Grease’s rocktastic seven-piece band, getting the joint a-jumpin’ to almost two dozen Grease classics, also including “Summer Nights,” “Freddy, My Love,” “Mooning,” “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” “Alone At A Drive-In Movie,” “Rock n’ Roll Party Queen,” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”
Though the band remains for the most part hidden, we do get to see them briefly when scenic designer Dreem Qin’s marvelously versatile set opens up for the Rydell prom to reveal them in their upstairs perch smack dab between Rebel Without A Cause’s James Dean and Natalie Wood, gazing down on the action throughout.
Amelia Brookins’ period costumes are as colorful as they get (with special snaps for her “Beauty School Dropout” headdresses and feathers). Grease is lit with vivid panache by G. Austin Allen, and sound designers Philip G. Allen and Danielle Kisner make everything crystal clear.
Kelly Merritt is stage manager and Jessica Major and Alex Rehberger are assistant stage managers. Haley Miller is technical director.
Additional program credits include Lea Branyan (assistant scenic designer), Stephen Jensenz (associate sound designer), Vika Teplinskaya and Erin O’Donnell (scenic artists), Chésed Escobedo and Erica Park (costume design PAs), and Liam Sterbinsky (lighting design PA).
Easily USC’s most crowd-pleasing big-stage musical in years, Grease is sure to keep the Bing Theatre packed throughout its two-week run. That it is also the most excitingly staged Grease you may ever have the great good fortune to see makes it a must-see, and the best musical theater bargain in town.
*Steve Bethers, Patrick Desai, Fuller, Lisa Gass, Matt Germaine, Jeremy Reinbolt, and Darryl Tanikawa
Bing Theatre, University Of Southern California,
April 2, 2015
Photos: Craig Schwartz