If in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific “Bali Hai” is calling you, in Grease -- The Musical Rydell High is recalling those supposedly happier school days of the 1950s. Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s show, which opened on Broadway in 1972, ran through 1980 with an astonishing 3,388 performances, was rather famously adapted for the big screen in 1978 with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John and remains one of the most beloved American musicals of all time.
Although set in 1959 the theme really deals with the sexual revolution that swept America during the 1960s with the advent of the birth control pill (unwanted pregnancy is a leitmotif of Grease) and other factors beyond the scope of this review. Sandy Dumbrowski (Nicola Barret) is a repressed, virginal teenager whose relationship with her hot-to-trot summer love and classmate Danny Zuko (Andrew Taula) is on the rocks -- until Sandy accepts her sexuality in the grand finale, when bids adieu to her “Sandra Dee” persona. When the 16-member cast sings “Grease is the word,” this is encoded language for embracing a freer lifestyle that’s not instinctually inhibited. Along these lines it’s interesting to note that Taula is of Samoan ancestry, and the message of Grease would be in keeping with anthropologist Margaret Mead’s classic account of a reputedly easygoing attitude toward adolescent sex among Polynesians in Coming of Age in Samoa.
In sharp contrast to the all American girl Dumbrowski (whose name may be a play on “dumb blonde” or “dumb broad”?) is the sexually active, “ethnic” Betty Rizzo (Brenda Castillo), leader of the cool girls, the Pink Ladies. Her Olympics in the backseat of Kenickie’s (Joseph Ott) “Greased Lightnin’” car may have resulted in her getting knocked up, as Rizzo embraces sex but not the responsibility that comes along with being promiscuous, et al. Although its underlying theme deals with sexuality, it is suggested in such a non-explicit way that Grease is, for the most part, considered to be a family show.
Grease, of course, has many wildly popular songs that make auds tap their tootsies and leaves them humming its tunes. Sandy’s solo “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is a divine love song, and the finale “You’re the One That I want” belted out by Sandy, Danny, the Pink Ladies and T-Birds (Danny, Kenickie and their gang) is a joyous, rollicking rock song, as is “We Go Together”, full of longing for lifelong solidarity.
The duet “Summer Nights” crooned by Sandy and Danny, backed by the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, is a wistfully innocent number about young love that all lucky people can relate to. “Beauty School Drop Out”, sung by wannabe cosmetologist Frenchy (Leah Trank), Teen Angel (Ishmon Brown) and a choir, is humorous in terms of both its lyrics and the music referencing the Do-Wop style.
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But for this reviewer’s money Rizzo has the best numbers and steals the show. Her “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” is not only a putdown of goody two-shoes Sandy, but a clever musical mocking of Hollywood’s virginal screen images of young women in the 1950s and early ’60s. The sexually adventurous Rizzo’s "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" is a moving defense of a “bad girl’s” morality. Rizzo challenges the archaic notion that goes back to Jezebel, et al, in the Old Testament that females who are sexually active outside of the bonds of marriage and for reproductive (as opposed to recreational) purposes must be punished, and her character is a harbinger of the feminist and free love consciousness that blossomed in the less rigid 1960s. Well done, Ms. Castillo -- and also a shout out to Jennifer Bales who is pretty funny as chowderhead Cha-Cha DiGregorio, who loves to cut the rug in this musical full of vivacious dancing directed by Michael Lopez, with Michelle Anderson credited as the dance captain.
The Encore Dinner Theatre does not strive to produce heavy, thought provoking works by Ibsen, Ionesco, Arthur Miller and the like. Instead its goal is to present lighthearted entertainment intended to amuse, accompanied by a tasty, hearty meal, and the venue succeeds well in doing so. The audience at Grease’s premiere seemed to have a ball. The Encore’s rendition of Grease is somewhere between being a school play, community theatre and a professional production. The biggest drawback is that for its production of one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history the Encore does not have live music (its Frank Sinatra-themed holiday show included a 13 piece orchestra), but uses taped plus one music instead.
Nevertheless the two-acter was enjoyable and the food delicious, including salads, stuffed Portobello mushroom and artistically arranged, succulent shrimp in ginger teriyaki sauce appetizer, roughy fish and brisket entrees plus sinfully chocolatey desserts, all delivered by timely, attentive servers. You’ll know it’s show time and that “Grease is the word” when the chandeliers and curtain are raised, and it’s time to let the fun ’n’ games begin!
Show times for Grease -- The Musical are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through March 1 at the Encore Dinner Theatre, 690 El Camino Real, Tustin, CA 92780. For more info: (855)545-5400; http://encoredinnertheatre.com/.