Throughout the opening night performance of Grease at Actors Cabaret of Eugene, I noted that my 8-year-old companion, and the elderly gentleman next to him, were both alternately laughing, clapping or simply enthralled. Young and old, they were watching a musical from the 1970s about teenagers from the 1950s; they were both loving it.
The collaborative brainchild of Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs, Grease first opened in 1971 at Chicago’s Kingston Mines Theater, a pioneer in that city’s “off-loop” alternative scene. The ’71 incarnation was by all accounts bawdier than either the cleaned-up 1972 Broadway version (which would see one of the longest runs in Broadway history) or the iconic 1978 film adaptation. And even though a slurry of dramaturgs have removed any whiff of salaciousness over the years, the show’s remarkably fresh, even with its PG rating. (I’d call it a “G,” but those T-Birds are still pretty obsessed with boobs, even in 2014.)
A brief synopsis: It’s 1958 and star-crossed teens Sandy Dumbrowski (in the stage play she’s a nice Polish girl from Chicago, not Olivia Newton-John from Australia) and Danny Zuko fell hard for each other on a beach in the summer, but now that they’re in different cliques at ol’ Rydell High School, they just can’t be together.
With a strong set of pipes, Jordon Nowotny as Danny exudes confidence and a sense of fun. Sandy, played by 16-year-old Samantha Tucker, gains momentum as the play rolls along. At times, the chorus eclipses newcomer Tucker’s voice, but she shines on her own.
Among the strong ensemble of T-Birds, the ebullient Jack McGaughey as Roger stands out in “Mooning.” Tag-a-long nerd Eugene, played by Cody Mendonca, delights as his alter-ego “teen angel” in “Beauty School Drop Out.”
All the Pink Ladies are pretty terrific. Madison Baker’s daffy Jan, Rachel Meyer’s smoldering Marty and Naomi Todd’s well-meaning Frenchy make a great entourage for the real focus: Betty Rizzo, played with aplomb by Samantha White, whose tour-de-force stage presence and nuanced vocals set the bar for the production.
With direction and choreography by Michael P. Watkins, the show’s pacing is consistently snappy and its blocking organic and lively. The dances add zip to the already entertaining score, and the performers’ enthusiasm sells every bouncy move. The mid-century set design by Joe Zingo sparkles and his clever props continually transform the tiny ACE stage with their inventiveness.
Grease runs through Aug. 9 at Actors Cabaret of Eugene.