Friday, May 9, 2014

REVIEW: BGHS's "Grease" so Square and Clean it Squeaked; Seriously Squelches Sexual Steam

The Battle Ground High School Drama Club presents "Grease" the hot 50s musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey now through May 17.

Without Sizzle, Show Fizzles

This "school version," directed by Stephan "Cash" Henry, was so cleaned up it could be titled "the church version." Don't get me wrong; the original "Grease" is pretty raunchy and risque, and I'm not saying it couldn't have used some discretion. I do generally like family friendly.

What I am saying is that the version of the show is so sanitized and saccharinized that it has lost a most of it's power, punch and point.

It's okay that the language and lyrics have been cleaned up a bit. The substitutions are still quite creative and entertaining. What doesn't work is the removal of the story's sexuality--the very reason for the tension between Danny and Sandy.

Sandy (Sarah Russell) and Danny (Ryan McNeal) in Greased Lightning.
For example: When the two go to the drive in movie you really don't get the feeling that he's trying to put any serious moves on her.

There's not even a single kiss in this show! There is nothing believable about the relationship and absolutely no apparent chemistry between Sandy (Sarah Russell) and Danny (Ryan McNeal).

Notes from Wikipedia: "In order to make the original musical suitable for young performers and audiences, Jim Jacobs decided to write a 'School Version' of the musical. This edition eliminates all of the references and uses of cigarettes and alcohol, as well as any swearing or bad language. Practically all of the songs have undergone changes as well; the numbers are all shortened tremendously and edited for content/language. 

"Some plot lines are missing from the school version, such as Rizzo's pregnancy and her song 'There Are Worse Things I Could Do.' This section is entirely cut from the script and score. The beginning of the pajama party in Marty's bedroom is cut as well. (In this version, the Pink Ladies do not offer Sandy cigarettes or wine. Instead it begins directly with piercing her ears.) Overall, this version is considered to be G-rated.

The following songs of the School Version have undergone lyric changes: 'Alma Mater Parody,' 'Summer Nights,' 'Freddy, My Love,' 'Greased Lightnin',' 'Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee,' and Beauty School Dropout.' The remainder of the songs have been edited severely for time, deleting several verses from the original songs."

The show runs less than two hours with the intermission and could have used more of the full show's content--some of which is actually quite relevant for modern students. Sadly missing are "Sandy" (my fave), "You're the One That I Want," and "Hopelessly Devoted to You" all of which were in the film and in several of the stage revivals.

We Go Together

Russell (standing left), McNeal (mckneeling), with Tristan Tindall as 
Kenickie, Dillon Zacharias, James Dyer as Roger, and Cody Bronkhorst
The cast, headed by Sarah Russell as Sandy and Ryan McNeal as Danny, was a generally well-matched ensemble.

However, of the three BGHS Drama Club productions I've now reviewed, this was the weakest presentation of the lot. Frankly, I expected better. What I got was only an average high school production.

Neither Russell (usually quite a stunning performer on all counts) nor McNeal particularly brought a lot of chutzpah to their roles. Russell sang wonderfully, as always; her pure and powerful voice is a delight. And McNeal also sang well. I especially loved his use and control of falsetto. Both delivered nicely together in"Summer Nights" and "All Chocked Up," but McNeal just didn't sell me on the "bad boy greaser" part.

While Russell didn't provide enough distinction in her before and after, she did embody the innocent Sandy well. She's a good actress and we are sad that, as a graduating senior, this is her last show with the district.

Tiffany Jara as Jan, Tanner Leeds as Doody, Jessie Akerley as Frenchy,
Brianna Sievers as Rizzo, Ryan McNeal as Danny
The chorus carried their tunes and danced well. However the dance steps (choreography by Sky Ring) were, for the most part, far from challenging and lacked dimension (meaning the performers danced in a single file line across the proscenium, rather than moving in layers).

Also, the dancers lacked precision and synchronization and could have used some more rehearsal (or flogging). However, "Born to Hand Jive" was good and "Shakin' at the High School Hop" was interesting and well executed (primarily due to the depth and variety). "We Go Together" really needed some work (there is so much that can be done with it).

Ramalama Kadingadi Ding Dong

A few of the secondary soloists either had a serious case of nerves or the melodies were too much of a challenge, as several notes slipped around off key. Some started rough and finished better, others couldn't pull out at all. In one case the melody was dropped an octave and it still suffered.

BUT there were good vocal performances, though lyrics were often impeded by a band that overpowered the stage feed. As mentioned, both Russel and McNeal delivered nicely, as did James Dyer (as Roger) and Tiffany Jara (as Jan) in their duet "Mooning." I think Dyer and Jara were the best vocalists in the show. They were also impressive actors, bringing quality, endearing characters to the stage and deft showmanship to the ensemble.

Sandy (Sarah Russell) sings "It's Raining on Prom Night" on the upper set;
note the show banner is missing from this pre-production photo.
Emily Pulley stood out as Patty, giving a strong supporting performance. Brendan Groat was exceptionally entertaining as the nerdy Eugene. And Markus King (as the main brain Vince Fontaine), Anthony Barnes (as Johnny Casino) and Skyler Denfield (as Teen Angel) were all delightful in the bit character roles; King rising enthusiastically to the top.

The showstopper, however, was Tristen Tindall's delivery of "Greased Lightnin'." His singing was very good and his performance--throughout the show--was the best of the best. He had the swagger and vocalization of a greaser down. The performance was top notch. Really impressive for a newbee.

Bailey Baxter belted out "Freddy, My Love" very nicely and Brianna Sievers sang "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" with aplomb (however she could have been more mockingly animated).

Some More Lovin', Had Me a Blast

From right to left: Anthony Barnes as Johnny Casino, Ryan McNeal as 
Danny and Teva Egar as Cha-Cha
Even though I've offered more criticism than usual, I did enjoy the show. It brought back a lot of memories. I have, of course, seen the movie, but I've also seen the professional stage play. Additionally, I played in a greaser band for a number of years and performed many of the songs from "Grease" (the original) as a high-schooler at the Oregon Speech and Arts Festival. So, I know the show very well. Perhaps I am too close to the music.

Which brings me to the band (under the direction of Greg McKelvey). They were absolutely excellent! Very tight, very professional. The ensemble included: Aaron Tuchardt (piano), Elliot Shannon (bass and guitar), Miles Meyer (what an excellent name for a drummer) and whichever of the three sax players  was playing opening night. The sax, especially, was absolutely stunning. Note: It would have been nice to have both guitar and bass at the same time.

Jessie Akerley as Frenchy, Brianna Sievers as Rizzo, Ryan McNeal as Danny,
and Bailey Baxter as Marty
Sundance Wilson Henry once again delivered well on the set and costume designs (how many pair of Chuck's did you buy?). The set used four levels and three staircases. Especially impressive was the use of the show banner which slid up and down to change the set from the lower high school/street set to the upper bedroom set.

I also wish to note that the drive-in movie voice overs (by Clifford Armstrong, Teva Egar and Cameron Olsen) were very well done...and amusing.

This presentation of "Grease" is very "safe" for the entire family and runs Thursday through Saturday nights at the high school Lair (cafetorium) at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30). Tickets on sale at: or at the door.

By Gregory E. Zschomler
Photos, by Glenn Erickson, provided

For another perspective on this show by Dennis Sparks click here.

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