Teen critic Andersen on ‘Grease:’ Still rockin’ hard

Eleven Charlotte-area high school students are competing in the new theater criticism category of the Blumey Awards, the Blumenthal Performing Arts’ annual musical theater awards program (read more about that here.) Each student writes three reviews; the following is one entry:

When a person hears the title “Grease,” chances are he or she immediately pictures John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, clad in black, belting out “You’re The One That I Want.” With the bar set high, the Gaston Day School thespians certainly had their hands full. Fortunately, they were well suited for the task. Phenomenal acting, catchy music, and thoughtful set and prop use all contributed to a nearly flawless performance of “Grease.”

The story, set in 1959. follows teenagers Danny Zuko (Mason Farmer) and Sandy Dumbrowski (Paxton Shaw). After a summer fling, Danny, the leader of the leather-clad T-Birds, and Sandy, a good-girl foreign exchange student from Australia, are shocked to discover that they both attend Rydell High School.

Sandy is immediately accepted into the cliquish Pink Ladies and tells the girls of her summer romance with Danny. Attempting to preserve his coolness, Danny rejects the innocent Sandy, upsetting her. As the year goes by, Danny attempts to pursue a relationship with Sandy without losing his reputation, while Sandy slowly gains more experience through her friendship with the Pink Ladies. As their relationship unfolds, Danny and Sandy, along with all of their friends, deal with the various pressures of high school and learn the values of love, friendship, and loyalty.

To its credit, Gaston Day did not shy away from the racy content of “Grease.” Though parents of young children in the audience grimaced through alcohol and drug references, make-outs in the park and pregnancy scares, the quality of the acting made each scene endearing.

Addressing every aspect of the theater experience, Gaston Day took great care to incorporate the themes of the performance into all of the details. Resident teacher Miss Lynch (Lauren Mitchell) took the podium on stage to present the pre-performance rules and recite the Pledge of Allegiance along with the entire audience. Class valedictorian Eugene (Will Harris) entered and requested the audience to stand and recite the Rydell High Alma Mater.

The level of chemistry between cast members was evident. Musical numbers featuring the Pink Ladies, such as the energetic “Summer Nights,” emphasized the talents of the female leads. Shaw was charismatic as Sandy, perfectly capturing the emotions needed to make each of her scenes convincing. As Marty, Jessy DeFrancisco emerged as a skilled actress early on, adding energy to scenes that might otherwise have lacked excitement (especially in “Freddy, My Love”). As Rizzo, Kathryn Oden impressed during her solos in “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Gray Heath, as Patty Simcox, and Laura Gaddis, as Cha-Cha, portrayed their exuberant characters well.

Because the female leads shone, the males were often left behind. Farmer did a respectable job throughout all of his musical numbers but was often lost alongside scene-stealers such as Shaw. The low point came in Act 2: Though Bailey Fleeman did well as Frenchy in “Beauty School Dropout,” the shock value of having Gaston Day athletic director Casey Field as Teen Angel was lost on outside guests. Between the prom scene beforehand and the drive-in theater scene afterward, this scene seemed uncomfortable. Fortunately, the show was able to recover relatively well throughout the final scenes.

A lot of thought was put into the details, too. A live orchestra, combined with a cast that had mastered voice projection, contributed to an enjoyable musical experience. Elaborate sets enhanced the old-timey feel of the performance without distracting from it. The props, particularly the life-sized, flashing car in "Greased Lightnin’,” were both impressive and realistic. Additionally, Gaston Day made terrific use of various stage components, seamlessly setting up future scenes in the background while current scenes took place in the foreground.