Heather Botts and Vince Oddo as Sandy and Danny

Review: Grease | Casa Manana | Casa Manana Theatre

Those Magic Changes

Given the task to direct the overdone musical Grease at Casa Mañana, director Joel Ferrell doesn't settle for the same-old-same-old.

published Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I can't pretend that Grease is a musical I ever care to see again. But, being one of the box office hits that gets revived time after time after time (after time), and considering that seeing theater is what I do, I'm sure there'll be many more Greases in my future.

Don't get me wrong. As a kid I watched the 1978 movie version over and over, and still have a fond place for it. Later I would realize that it's one of the few movie versions of a stage musical in which the reordering of the songs make more sense. Fun, enjoyable show, but I'm done with it.

That said, younger generations of theatergoers need to see it, and actors need to work. Plus, theaters don't program their seasons with critics in mind, nor should they. And if I do have to see Grease again, please God, let it be directed and cast by Joel Ferrell.

Ferrell, the artistic director of Casa Mañana in the late 1990s, has of late been showing North Texans why he's a premier director of musicals in his role as Associate Artistic Director at the Dallas Theater Center. He makes a surprising, but welcome, return to the House of Tomorrow with Grease.

Bottom line: It's much better than any production of it I've seen. The actors playing Danny (Vince Oddo, beefier than most Dannys, which makes it funnier when he refers to the jocks as "meatheads"), Sandy (Heather Botts, with heavenly vocals and much more convincing as "good Sandy"), Rizzo (brassy, sexy Carrie A. Johnson) and Kenickie (John Ashley Brown) all act and sing the heck out of it, if not necessarily offering anything new to their performances. To be fair, is there anything to be added?

Aside from excellent casting, here's how you can tell it's a Joel Ferrell production: It's not copied—visually or otherwise—from the movie or the other stage versions you always see.

Let's start with Teen Angel, that squeaky-clean dreamboat who leads the "Beauty School Dropout" scene. You always see him played by a Frankie Avalon type with an impeccably coiffed pompadour. You get that haircut here, although it's sparkly, as is the ake-up and dinner jacket of the actor playing him, Maurice Johnson. He's a flamboyant Little Richard-type, a little bawdier; makes sense in a show where in the end, naughty trumps nice. Besides, who better to tell Frenchy (Laura Wetsel) that girlfriend won't make the cut as a hair stylist?

Johnson, with his booming voice, also plays Johnny Casino, and it's a subtle statement about '50s America and race relations.

And back to "Beauty School Dropout": You know how every production apes the movie and has the chorus girls wearing silver pyramids of oversized rollers on their head? This time they're wigged out, literally and metaphorically. Each girl sports a frizzy 'do that looks like the before photos in a shampoo commercial. They're each adorned with related accouterments (I like the giant neon scissors on one), and wearing clear masks with make-up that give them a zombie-esque appearance. Props to hair/wig/make-up designer Patricia Delsordo, although clearly a direction from Ferrell. They go together.

Then there's the uptight teacher and chaperone Miss Lynch, normally played by a woman. Here, it's David Coffee, who's been putting on heels and dresses a lot for Casa lately, what with Hairspray in 2011 and Greater Tuna a few months ago. A little absurd and completely funny; a reminder that in high school, like the real world, what you see isn't always what you get.

There are other little directing touches that add to the overall appeal, such as the way Pink Lady Jan (Alixe Ward in a funny turn) is always digging for snacks, even if it means diving under the lunch table.

Thanks, Joel Ferrell and Casa, for not boring us with another paint-by-numbers production of an overdone musical hit. Thanks For Reading

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Those Magic Changes
Given the task to direct the overdone musical Grease at Casa Mañana, director Joel Ferrell doesn't settle for the same-old-same-old.
by Mark Lowry

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