The Chanhassen Dinner Theatre‘s production of Grease is a funny, tightly performed show. Set in 1959, (book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey) Grease pairs a group of high school girls, more interested in boys and parties than in academics, with a tough gang of senior boys. The boys all tout meticulously combed, “greaser hairdos” popular as an anti-establishment statement at that time. Under the direction of Michael Brindisi, choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson and music director Richard Long the result is a slick and entertaining production.
Parents take note: This is not the cleaned-up version of Grease that you may have seen when you were a teenager. That version was specifically rewritten for high schools to perform. It removed the cigarettes, the harsh language and crude sexual references of the original. This show contains pointed references to unwanted pregnancy, features breast grabbing and groping and contains a binge drinking scene. The whole production has the realistic edge of a high school in a working-class section of Chicago in 1959.
The show’s main plot is a standard love story between an awkward new girl in school, Sandy Dumbrowski (Caroline Innerbichler), and the very handsome leader of the pack of boys, Danny Zuko (Aleks Knezevich). While the two have their moments, most of the real fun is in the subplots and supporting characters.
The girls, who call themselves the Pink Ladies, are led by Betty Rizzo, played by Ruthanne Heyward, a fine actress who dominates the show with her jaw-jutting, strong-backed performance. Rizzo’s boyfriend, Kenickie (well done by Ben Bakken) wants nothing more than a set of wheels. When he gets his car he drives the souped-up, second-hand vehicle on stage and the boys sing one of the musical’s best numbers: Greased Lightning. In this production, it becomes a serious homage to automotive fetishism and received prolonged applause on opening night.
Possibly the best part of the second act are two back-to-back numbers. The first is when Pink Lady, Frenchy (Shinah Brashears), sings Beauty School Drop-out when hopeless future looms for her as a very real consequence of failing grades. This is followed by the appearance of Teen Angel (excellent Kasano Mwansa) in a surprising turn that I won’t divulge. It brought the house down.
Grease has had several incarnations, as a film, a stage version and the school version. In fact, the Chanhassen’s production is a hybrid. Songs by Barry Gibb and John Farrar that appeared in the film version are added to good effect. Gibbs’ Grease is the Word puts the final cap on the show as a post-curtain call send-off.
The cast is strong throughout. Long time CDT actor Keith Rice as sleazy radio announcer, Vince Fontaine is perfect. And Michelle Barber, another CDT favorite, rates an “A” as teacher Miss Lynch. Knezevich’s acting makes the love story work. His shy smile slides in when his fellow greasers are not around. If the show has a flaw it is Innerbichler’s portrayal of Sandy. She reveals little of her character’s inner life. Her transformation in the final scenes could be more believable.
Good costumes by Rich Hanson avoid clichéd poodle skirts (though they are on sale in the lobby). His details are impressive: box-pleated skirts and pedal pushers, pastels and plaids. The sets designed by Nayna Ramey are wonderful examples of midcentury modern decor.
What is most extraordinary about the Chanhassen’s production is its sheer spunk. The energy in this show is infectious. Brindisi has a hit on his hands.