Abilene’s Great Plains Theater is about 45 minutes from Aggieville. The company, which uses some professional actors, is now in its 27th season. We drove out to see the first night of the second show of the year, a production of “Grease.”
Which turned out to be full of fun. The cast was so young looking and the set so basic that we might have had misgivings. But it turned out that Director Mitchell Aiello had a talented cast, good costumes (dig the satin Pink Lady jackets), an effective on-stage band, and a notion of how to keep things moving along.
The net result was one of my favorite GPT productions, one that will, I suspect, amuse anyone who isn’t already tired of the musical itself. The Abilene version seems to have followed the first Broadway one closely, by the way, so this was a little less toothless “Grease” than ones high school drama programs do.
However, the show’s story isn’t the basis of its continuing popularity. The evolution of a romantic relationship begun as a summer flirtation really isn’t all that interesting. What elevates the show is the music.
Some of it parodies the doo-wop music of the 1950s. And of course the story is set in 1959 in an urban (originally a Chicago) high school, all leather jackets, hops hosted by disc jockeys, and hot rods. A good-looking Bel-Aire sat on the lawn outside the theater for early arrivals to examine.
But “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightin’,” “We Go Together,” “Born to Hand Jive,” “Hopelessly Devoted,” and “You’re the One That I Want” are really just Pop songs. The surprising thing is that there are so many memorable Pop songs in the one show.
And even if we didn’t already know the material, the first night audience would be unlikely to forget the performances of those numbers by the GPT cast. The young women had surprisingly strong voices. All of them.
The men were hardly less strong singers. Kansas native and TCU grad Lance Jewett (playing Danny) and Bear Manescalci (playing Doody) each accompanied himself on the guitar while singing reputable versions of songs.
The orchestra (keyboards, kit drums, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar) had the volume limitation problem that hurts many live performances, but they came close to solving it, mostly by keeping drummer Jack Graefe away from cymbals.
Live dance in shows has been very strong around here the last decade or so. The “Grease” cast danced well, and choreographer Melissa Ford (who was also solid on stage as omnivorous Jan, partner to the “mooner” played well by Matthew Glen Clark) had designed and rehearsed pleasing dance steps for them.
And then there was the acting. Jewett and Olivia Ursu (as Sandy) were skilled enough to bring off their parts, and Kimberly Carmacho had the voice and presence to play Rizzo. It was Beth Siegling’s turn as goofy Frenchy that I think I’ll remember, though. She was always on, and she was always right in her reactions. Loved the head scarf.
The split stage method helped keep the pace of things moving—on the right was an open area, on the left was what could stand for bleachers. The pairs of songs (two versions of the school’s alma mater, two takes on “I’m Sandra Dee,” and the set ending arrangements of “We Go Together”) helped suggest that the events are something more than just an olio.
But really, what went on was simply good-natured nonsense. Pretty high-grade nonsense, given the performances. If you want an excuse to get out and have a pleasant evening, call for tickets.