Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Bear Grease
New Native Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Moneylender's Daughter and Radiant Vermin

Courtesy of Bear Grease
Minneapolis-based New Native Theatre was founded in 2014 with a mission to create authentic and transformative plays and events through the lens of the Native American experience. Its stated focus is on the eleven tribes based in Minnesota and on Minnesota's urban Native community, which comprises Native people from all corners of the nation. New Native Theatre is currently presenting a visiting production titled Bear Grease, a spoof of the musical Grease with characters and settings transferred from suburban Chicago to an Indian reservation. The show is being staged at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul.

Bear Grease was created by husband-and-wife entertainers Crystle Lightning and Henry Andrade, aka MC RedCloud, who jointly go by the name Lightning Cloud and are based in Edmonton, Alberta. Bear Grease has been characterized as a way to go back to Grease's 1950's era, depicted as a carefree time of singing, dancing, dating and driving, but for Native people not so good an era. In an interview in the Calgary Herald, RedCloud cited the residential boarding schools to which a great many Native children were confined during that era, adding "We didn't have the freedom to dance around the streets and hallways like John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. This is almost like a chance to reimagine that."

In 1971, when Grease was first mounted, those happy days of the 1950s had vanished for many Americans: The country was enmeshed in an intractable war in Vietnam, the fight for civil rights remained in full throttle, Stonewall had triggered an open struggle for gay liberation, women were galvanizing around a campaign for an equal rights amendment, and the emergent environmental movement was sounding alarms about a planet in peril, for starters. To say nothing of the American Indian Movement and the siege at Alcatraz. Leave it to theatre folks to devise a balm to calm the frayed nerves and angry voices: nostalgia for those supposedly stress-free years, in the form of Grease, an idea picked up by the movies with American Graffiti and television with "Happy Days."

Things had never been in so blissful a state for Native communities, at least since the arrival of the Europeans, so there may not have been an impulse to look back a decade or two to better days. But if white American culture can appropriate aspects of Native people's customs, Native people have as much right to help themselves to one of mainstream cultures most cherished values: nostalgia. As RedCloud expressed, indigenous Americans are just as capable of and entitled to jive, rock, and waxing nostalgic as the greasers and pink ladies who first took the stage in Grease. The talented cast of Bear Grease absolutely attests to the truth of that notion.

The show opens with an entreaty to the audience to think back to 1492 an imagine that, as Columbus's three ships approach the islands of the Caribbean, they are met by 20,000 flying arrows, halting their progress, keeping the Europeans from setting foot on the western hemisphere, and averting a genocide, with its colonization, diabetes, and crack cocaine. But, we are told, that didn't have to mean that radio play and fast cars wouldn't have developed, which brings us to Bear Grease.

Things get started with a few romantic standards from the era ofGrease, first by a quintet of girls–all Native performers, in costumes that combine the look of the fifties with indigenous design elements. The lead singer on "Be My Baby" is Rezzo (a spin on Grease's Rizzo), played by Tammy Rae with a lovely voice that conveys the song's yearning. Next is "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" led by Melody McArthur as Sandy, with a strong sound and fierce presence. The girls leave and five guys take the stage, with lead singer Bryce Morin, as Danny, on both "Only You" and "Twilight Time." He projects a strong, smooth voice with a requisite first-rate falsetto. In all of these numbers, the lead singer is backed by the other four, with coordinated moves to make a satisfying entertainment package.

Eventually, we glide into the story, which uses just the outline of Grease's plot, with the premise of Danny and Sandy meeting over the summer–but at the summer powwow, not a summer vacation, and Sandy showing up unexpectedly as a "new girl" at the same school. Sandy and Danny relate the events of that powwow to their friends in song. The sly humor in Bear Grease is reflected in the title change from "Summer Nights" to "Summer Snaggin," which contains the terrific culturally right-on lyric "Summer dreams, fry-bread and beans."

As in its predecessor, things don't go totally smoothly between Sandy and Danny. Sandy was totally cool enough for Danny when it was just the two of them, but she is not cool enough for him to acknowledge in front of his friends at school, and the cool girls–now the Pink Aunties, instead of the Pink Ladies–snub Sandy as well, complete with Rezzo dishing the new girl in "Sandra Dee." However (spoiler alert), after a sleepover, a makeover, and some changes of heart, all works out well for the happy couple.

A few of the original Grease songs are similarly adapted with clever lyrics, and other songs join the mix. The best of the batch is "Hopelessly Devoted to You," a song not actually in the original Grease on stage, but added for the movie, which Morin sings, accompanying himself on a hand drum, creating a heartfelt moment that transcends the send-up attitude of the show as a whole. The jubilant Grease closer, "We Go Together," is replaced by an equally rousing number called "Meet Me at the Pow Wow."

Everyone in the cast sings well, moves with high spirits, and shows dedication to the carefree sensibility of the show along with its higher calling as an effort to claim their birthright to a piece of mainstream America's cultural legacy. Rodney McLeod, as Canuckie (nee Kenickie), displays a buoyant presence and keen comedy chops, while Teneil Whiskeyjack (as Marty) and Artson (as Arty) put in some outstanding dance routines. As director and assistant director of their creation, Lightning Cloud know just what attitudes and messages they want to convey, and ably lead their troupe to that end.

The show is performed on a mostly bare stage. Projections that were intended to be screened were not ready for inclusion on opening night, but no doubt those will bring additional atmosphere to the production. There are no credits offered for the costumes, which are well conceived, nor for the capable light or sound design.

The idea behind Bear Grease and its place within the broader mission of New Native Theatre strike me as being more important than the show itself, which falls into the category of highly entertaining fluff. But that idea and that mission elevate the show to something worth seeking out, if for no other reason than to appreciate what is possible when we are all included.

Bear Grease , a Lightning Cloud production presented by New Native Theatre, runs through March 9, 2024, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets, please call 612-401-4506. For information about New Native Theatre, visit For information about Bear Grease, visit

Created by: Crystle Lightning and Henry MC RedCloud Andrade; Director: Crystle Lightning; Assistant Director: Henry MC RedCloud Andrade; Lighting Technician: Jeremy Echols.

Cast: Artson (Arty), Raven Bright (Roger), Monique Candelaria (Frenchie), Justin Giehm (Sonny Boy), Nipiy Iskwew (Jan), Melody McArthur (Sandy), Rodney McLeod Canuckie), Bryce Morin (Danny), Tammy Rae (Rezzo), Teneil Whiskeyjack (Marty).