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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A High-Octane Grease
5th Avenue Theatre


Kirsten deLohr Helland and Cast
Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs' Grease is one of those phenomenal little engines that could musical hits that come out of New York every blue moon. Named for the 1950s United States youth subculture known as greasers, the musical is set in 1959 at fictional Rydell High School in Chicago, and follows ten working-class teenagers as they navigate the complexities of peer pressure, politics, personal core values, and love. The score accurately parodies early 1950s rock and roll. In its original production, Grease was a raunchy, raw, aggressive, vulgar show. Subsequent productions sanitized it and tamed it down. It was first performed in 1971 in a Chicago club and from there has been successful on both stage and screen, but the content has been diluted and its teenage characters have become less Chicago habitués and more generic (the film re-set in Southern, California). Opening on Broadway in 1971, Grease's 3,388-performance run was the longest in Broadway history through its 1980 closing. It went on to become a West End hit, a hugely successful film, and saw popular Broadway revivals in 1994 and 2007; it is a staple of regional theatre, summer stock, community theatre, and high school and middle school drama groups. Grease remains Broadway's 15th longest-running show.

The 5th Avenue Theatre's latest home-grown, high-octane Grease is a saucy summer sundae of a '50s fantasy, directed with pizzazz by Eric Ankrim who makes it mildly naughty but still family friendly, with fizzy Chrissy Whitehead choreography that refuses to ever come to a complete stop. Its so-called bad message that bad girls finish first be hanged, this show is best taken as a musical comedy lark, and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is ... well you know.

The premium greased lightning in this Grease comes from a characterful, vocally, and choreographically superior ensemble cast led by Kirsten deLohr Helland's ace performance as Betty Rizzo, the bad girl who makes you cry. We laugh at her "Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee" hi-jinks, but Miss deLohr-Helland brings honest guts, heart, and pathos to a superb "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" that hints at a heartier exploration of these characters than explored elsewhere in the score. Indeed, it is several Pink Ladies in this cast who take top honors, especially Sarah Russell's endearingly gregarious Jan and Sarah Rose Davis' toothy and tickly turn as high school and beauty school drop out Frenchy, while Joel Weill's Marty has the vocal chops to own the lead on "Freddy, My Love."

Ostensible leads Bryan Gula as gang-leading "Burger Palace Boy" Danny Zuko and Solea Pfeiffer as nice girl Sandy Dumbrowski are sorta the Frankie and Annette of the piece, but Frankie never showed the comic chops that Gula does on "Alone at the Drive-in Movie", and Miss Pfeiffer has a richly soulful voice to be reckoned with, perhaps best showcased here with "Hopelessly Devoted to You," an interpolated song from the film given a clever staging by choreographer Whitehead. Patrick Shelton strikes low-comedy gold as Roger, the mooning champ, and his "Mooning" duet with Russell's Jan is a treat. Andi Alhadeff sizzles and earns guffaws as a rival high school hand-jive dancer named Cha-Cha, Marianne Owen brings delightful flashes of naughtiness to the otherwise prim teacher Miss Lynch, Jordan Bolden's Sonny is a wonderful wise ass, Kody Bringman brings on the talent as dorky Doody on "Those Magic Changes" and dueting with Bolden on "Rock 'n' Roll Party Queen." Kyle Robert Carter is the perfect Teen Angel soloist for "Beauty School Dropout" and is Brylcreem slick and slimy as DJ Vince Fontaine. Three cheers for Meaghan Foy's rah-rah cheerleader bitch Patty, and always amazing Justin Huertas who makes nerd nirvana out of the role of class book-worm Eugene. Puzzlingly, Saxton Jay brings little charisma to the role of Rizzo's heartthrob Kenickie in his big "Greased Lightnin'" number yet scores on the dynamite ensemble numbers like "Summer Nights" and "You're the One That I Want."

RJ Tancioco's excellent musical direction and conducting is augmented by key band players Billy Joe Huels and the Dusty 45s who do a mean onstage pre-show warm-up as well. Christopher Mumaw's sets are spare and cartoony, never looking to high gloss for this candy apple show, with Tom Sturge's lighting perfectly in sync, and as for the '50s fashions, Harmony Arnold's costumes would have been called bitchin' back in the '50s.

Grease runs through August 2, 2015, at the 5the Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave, downtown Seattle. Go to www.5thavenue.org for tickets and further information.



- David Edward Hughes



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