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Attending the Surry Arts Council’s production of Grease at the Andy Griffith Playhouse was like a homecoming for me. I vividly remember many years ago as a sixth-grader watching from the back row of the house the last time the SAC put on Grease (in what was then unofficially known as the season’s “teen play” slot). That thrilling production was largely responsible for inspiring my own ensuing involvement with the SAC’s community theater during my time in middle and high school. This trend of youth involvement seems to have continued; Grease director Debbie Severs Diamont noted that a third of this cast never had been in a play before. Seeing Grease again on the Andy Griffith Playhouse stage was quite a joy – and a declaration that professional theaters do not have a monopoly on entertainment.
Set in 1959, Grease, the original high school musical, is filled with songs and characters so much a part of pop culture that they are familiar even to those who have somehow managed never to see the John Travolta film (a confession of my own) or a stage production of the successful musical. The story follows daily-life drama of the students at Rydell, modeled after Grease creator Jim Jacob’s own Chicago high school. New girl Sandy Dumbrowski temporarily interrupts the norm after revealing her summer romance with the coolest kid in school, Danny Zuko. Danny’s gang of colorful friends, The Burger Palace Boys, is coupled with the in-crowd girls, The Pink Ladies, of which Sandy soon becomes a member. Sandy’s search for acceptance at her new school only outwardly represents each character’s internalized desperation to belong. Grease initially focuses on the significance of the trivial, so emphasized in high school social life. But when Danny and Sandy’s previously idyllic relationship disintegrates into a series of misplaced desires and fellow Burger Palace Boy Kenickie finds out Pink Ladies member Rizzo may be pregnant with his child, consequences of the real world become much more imminent. The foul language and distinct Chicago accents of the musical were tamed in this production to be more accessible to the SAC’s general audience, but the gritty themes of defiance, acceptance, lust, and love stayed largely intact.
The show got off to a slow start with a couple of sluggish scenes, delivered like the exposition they are, and a wishy-washy performance of the title song “Grease.” However, with the first full-company number, “Summer Nights,” there was an explosion of movement and energy. What followed was an incredibly fun and engaging production that had me ready to jump out of my seat with each number. In general, the scenes didn’t have quite as much energy as the songs, with notable exception of a sizzling Pink Ladies slumber party scene, but that is less a barb on the acting than a credit to the show’s strong vocal and musical direction. Unfortunately, significant technical issues with the actors’ microphones often detracted from otherwise consistent singing.
Occasional pacing issues slowed the show’s momentum, especially multiple long scene changes. However, many of the transitions were covered by a rocking orchestra, led by Mark Pilson on piano, which eased otherwise troublesome pauses between scenes.
The set and lighting for the show were more functional than inspiring, with exception of Jerry Atkins’ playful car cutouts used at the drive-in movie and as the Greased Lightin’.
Despite Grease’s major storyline following Danny (Katlin Sias, who showed star power in “Alone at the Drive-In Movie”) and Sandy (Kelsey Killon displaying a beautiful soprano voice and impressive runs), this production belonged to Kenickie and Rizzo. Andrew Billings, whose fan club was audible at Monday night’s performance, stole every scene with his spastic, excitable, and endearing portrayal of Kenickie, a wannabe tough guy who is a romantic at heart. He shone singing lead in the men’s song “Greased Lightnin’,” a number that was so much fun I couldn’t stop smiling the entire time. Likewise, Ronalyn Dizon was a standout as the promiscuous Rizzo. Dizon oozed confidence and edge, while showing just enough vulnerability to make the audience love her. Her poignant, powerful, and raw rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was a highlight of the evening. Billings and Dizon had a palpable chemistry, which far surpassed the rather unenthused romance of Sias and Killon, making Kenickie and Rizzo’s saga of uncertain love and teen pregnancy much more compelling than the iconic Danny/Sandy relationship.
Other standouts in this production included Becky Brewer, who landed every joke as the lovable, food-crazed Jan; a hilarious Austin Beasley as the dorky, choreographically-challenged Eugene Florczyk; and a committed Cole Gentry, whose sweet and innocent Doody may have gazed into the audience only slightly more than into the bosom of his girlfriend, Frenchy (a quirky Abby Ghee). Also notable was Scott Carpenter’s Teen Angel, which delighted with a more sincere delivery than the role’s typically campy one. Throughout this production, the secondary characters consistently carried the show.
More than the performances of this production, perhaps what will stick with me most was an exchange I happened to overhear at intermission among three elementary-age boys in line for the men’s room. They were discussing the merits of the acting (“very good”), the credibility of the kissing (which they concluded must be fake), and how much they were looking forward to the SAC’s upcoming auditions for Cinderella (“Plays are a lot of fun if you have a good part,” according to the oldest boy). Hearing them, I was immediately transported to memories of my sixth-grade self watching Grease and the intoxication I felt by the joy the actors were having on stage. It is inspiring to know that in a world that is increasingly virtual, theater continues to be substantive, physically and emotionally impacting its audiences. As part of a former generation of SAC performers, watching a current one and overhearing a future one, the importance of the role of community theaters to provide universal opportunities to create was further solidified to me. And if community members can be involved in productions so injected with fun (too often missing from professional shows) and in front of sold-out houses like with the SAC’s Grease, there is great promise that the art form will endure along with the stories it tells.