A friend who went to a Prince George’s County high school in the 1950s recently described school life in the decade as a time of sock hops and proms; a clean-cut era in which students had respect for teachers and life was relatively innocent.
An alternate 1950s narrative has made its way into popular culture, representing the era as one of restlessness, rebelliousness breaking out from below the surface and rampant juvenile delinquency, as presented in the film “American Graffiti” and the musical “West Side Story.” Director Mark Minnick’s vibrant production of the 1971 musical “Grease” at Toby’s Dinner and Show in Columbia (playing through July 28) cuts the difference between these two visions.
Amid posters and adverts of Hostess desserts and TV’s “Lassie,” “Howdy Doody,” and “Mickey Mouse Club,” rebellious greasers dominate Rydell High School, Toby’s theatre-in-the-round stage, and of course, the storyline of “Grease.”
For those who have never seen “Grease” or its 1978 film version, the plot begins after a summer romance between strait-laced Sandy (played by Nicki Elledge) and cool greaser Danny (played by Matt Hirsh). They meet again during the first day of school. In his school milieu, however, Danny is the leader of a greaser school clique, and his determination to keep a cool self image takes precedence over his relationship to Sandy, who is considered a “goody two-shoes” and therefore unpopular.
Although Danny is presented as a flawed character all too caught up in his ego and popularity, the story strangely turns around to portray Sandy as the deficient one, for she has “got to get with it,” according to Rizzo (played by Maggie Dransfield) of the Pink Ladies clique.
The roughness of “Grease” and its untraditional ethos were softened in the film by the charm of Olivia Newton-John as an Australian fish out of water and, for nostalgia buffs, vintage television stars such as Eve Arden (1950s teacher Connie Brooks in “Our Miss Brooks”). The stage musical is a harder-edged “Grease” which should be appreciated on its own terms, and Toby’s production is outstanding.
Two controversial issues the musical takes on are teen pregnancy and dropping out of school, both to memorable music. Frenchy (played by Allie O’Donnell) is indecisive about staying in school or following her dream to become a hairstylist. She wishes she “had one of those guardian angels” to lead her down the right path.
A teen angel appears and serenades her into staying in school as “Beauty School Dropout” is sung by Crystal Freeman with power, beauty and poignancy. In terms of singing, this is the standout number in the show. This is also the turning point at which the plot takes a somber direction as Rizzo must confront that she might be pregnant in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” sung strongly and with great effect by Maggie Dransfield.
Other musical moments to watch and listen for are driving rock-and-roll numbers such as the Ensemble’s “We Go Together” and “Shakin’ at the High School Hop,” performed by DeCarlo Raspberry as Johnny Casino, channeling such flamboyant rock-and-roll performers as Chubby Checker.
“And now, for more 50s nostalgia:” The radio announcer Vince Fontaine is played by Jeffrey Shankle, accurately mimicking the banter of a 1950s disc jockey of the appropriately named radio station WAXX (a station moniker referring to 45- and 33-rpm records of the era which were “cut in wax”).
During the dinner part of Toby’s Dinner and Show, throughout intermission, and even a bit in the performance, authentic 1950s music is played, including “doo-wop” songs, the Platter’s ballad “Only You (and You Alone),” Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic “Take Five” and Percy Faith’s easy-listening instrumental “Theme from ‘A Summer Place.’” (Interestingly, this last selection, the number one record hit of 1960, challenges the current popular notion and that of “Grease” that rock and roll dominated the music scene at the exclusion of all else.)
As is usual at Toby’s, the theatre-in-the-round setting presents challenges, which scenic designer David A. Hopkins and others turn into decided advantages. The stage props are excellent, suggesting a malt shop and locations within a high school. Audiences will especially love the mini-1950s-style automobiles which cruise onto the stage from time to time with some of the characters riding in them!
Music director Ross Scott Rowlings and his small orchestra recreate effectively the 1950s rock-and-roll sound as well as the occasional song in a different tempo, such as the waltz-like “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.”
“Grease” at Toby’s is a nostalgia tour through the 1950s, while occasionally confronting some of the challenges of that era. Yet perhaps what is most special about this production is that it transcends the 1950’s material and the 1970s origin of “Grease” to place us back in our youth, when we once navigated with difficulty the path between individual integrity and a strong desire to fit in and please others.