Several decades have now passed since I sat joyfully in a Broadway balcony enjoying the fun-filled original production of “Grease,” with its book, music, and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. And of course it was some time later that Hollywood produced the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John version that most youngsters today are familiar with. Who could have guessed that on this very weekend Travolta would again vault into musical comedy legend, this time playing a woman in “Hairspray.” But “Grease” continues to be a crowd-pleaser, and such is the case with Masquerade’s current edition in the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall.
While we are talking musical comedy here, the emphasis in director Phillip Duggins’ production is wisely on the musical aspect.(The GREASE Orchestra was led by pianist, Sally Gardner.)The comedy in this boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl frolic is a bit dated and falls flat at times. But those of us who grew up in the ‘50’s can still find humor in much of the teenage nonsense. Duggins, by the way, addressed the audience briefly before each act with details of the coming season. He was visibly (and very justifiably) gleeful at the growing success of this increasingly popular repertory company. Proof of that was the packed house on opening night. Masquerade has come a long way since the old house in The Heights with its fewer than one hundred seats. If you plan to attend, you best call for reservations now.
The action plays out on a flexible set from designer, David Higginbotham, that alternately suggests Rydell High School, a hot-rod garage, the school gymnasium, a soda shop, and a drive-in movie, all cleverly embraced by a jukebox design and central staircase. Stephanie Bradow’s ’50’s costume designs were a cheerful added highlight, as was the bright choreography from the design trio of Kristin Warren, Laura Gray and Braden Hunt.
We open with the delicious pomposity of the Rydell Alma Mater, a near-religious anthem. If things move a bit slowly at first, the show catches fire nicely with “Summer Nights,” featuring fine solo work from good looking co-stars, Brad Scarborough (as Danny) and Laura Gray (as new student, Sandy), while Danny’s rough-edged cronies, the T-Birds, and their female clique counterparts, The Pink Ladies, offer some first-rate dancing and vocal back-up. Then we meet an actor to keep an eye on as handsome Corey Hertzog (Doody) lights up the stage, high atop the staircase. With guitar in hand and pleasing voice, he brought an infectious youthful passion to leading the ensemble in “Those Magic Changes,” and appeared to be having a great time doing it.
At a Pink Lady pajama party, rich-voiced Libby Evans (Marty), leads the gals in a coy and sultry “Freddy, My Love,” that is full of teen angst. Then T-Bird member, Kenickie (Luther Chakurian) appeared to be channeling TV’s immortal Fonzie as he led the cast in the rousing “Greased Lightning.” Lisa Carter does an amusing job of portraying the very annoying classmate, Patty, and Sam Brown (Roger) is a rich vocal surprise pairing with Kacy Smith (Jan) for their sweet duet of “Mooning.” Kristin Warren plays tough party-girl, Rizzo, and gives us a bit of deliciously flighty mockery as she sings, “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” to poke fun at the perceived innocence of Sandy, the new girl in school. A lusty and exuberant full-cast “We Go Together,” closed Act I with whirling choreography and terrific ensemble singing.
There was more eye-popping dancing in Act II with “Shakin’ At the High School Hop.” On a more somber note, Miss Gray sings a plaintive “It’s Raining On Prom Night,” full of teenage longing. Meanwhile, John Gremillion (as loud-mouthed radio D.J., Vince Fontaine) presides merrily over prom night at the gym, with plenty of amusing interplay with the school principal, Miss Lynch (a fine comic turn from Allison Sumrall). As pop singer, Johnny Casino, Ilich Guardiola provides a rowdy crowd-pleaser with “Born to Hand Jive.” Kristina Sullivan gives a poignant portrayal of Frenchy, the school dropout. In an over-the-top fantasy sequence, the Teen Angel (Braden Hunt) arrives in dazzling white and sequined suit to encourage Frenchy with a hilarious “Beauty School Dropout” number that looked like it had been plucked from the Ziegfeld Follies.
The considerable vocal skill of Mr. Scarborough was most evident in his touching and powerful “Alone at the Drive-In Movie.” Roger and Doody return with a lusty “Rock N’ Roll Party Queen,” and Rizzo offers a bluesy and jazzy, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Of course all ended happily with a rousing finale, but I found myself wondering why Sandy had to become a bit trashy in order to win back her Danny. I always kind of liked Sandra Dee.
Grease will be performed in the Zilkha Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center at 8 p.m. on July 21st and 27th and at 2 p.m. on July 29th. For tickets and information call Masquerade Theatre (713-861-7045) or the Hobby Center (713-315-2525).