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August 1, 2014

Muny makes 'Grease' a blast from the past

The latest reincarnation of "Grease" at the Muny puts the "boom" in the ultimate Baby Boomer musical.

With its ebullient ensemble and good vibrations, this beloved classic made the audience smile from the Rydell High School Class of 1959 "Alma Mater" opening to the fizzy finale.

I saw people's shoulders start moving to "Summer Nights," so by "We Go Together," which ended the first act, everyone was bopping along. The curtain call got people on their feet, some dancing in the aisles.

This is not grandma's original 1971 "Grease," however. With four songs added from the wildly popular 1978 movie --- "Grease is the Word," "Hopelessly Devoted to You," "Sandy" and "You're the One That I Want" -- the show's sixth presentation at the Muny is a fresh take, more in line with the 2007 Broadway revival.

Director/choreographer Denis Jones blew the dust off the show. He revitalized numbers with innovative choreography and imaginative staging. Its zippy pace and slick set changes helped ramp up the fun, too.

Andrea Lauer's costumes were a terrific palette of the times, and Timothy Mackabee's set design was a splendid recreation as well. His bleachers-locker combo, along with the drive-in scene, girl's bedroom and house party captured those happy carefree days.

And of course the "Greased Lightning" car got a hearty round of applause -- simply sensational.

Chicagoans Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey looked back at their "greaser" years and grew a cultural phenomenon. This tale of Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys -- now the T-birds -- has become such a theatrical staple that many people know all the words to the songs. The audience expects certain things from the distinctive working-class teen characters.

It's now a show that appeals to several generations, so to see such a wide range of ages fill just about every Muny seat was heart-warming. As fluffy and fun as this musical is, it means something to people. And they hope they're in for a good time.

That connection spurred the energetic young cast to give their all -- they could have powered the nearby Ameren station with their enthusiasm. They crisply delivered one joyous musical number after another -- "Summer Nights" and "Born to Hand Jive" being crowd favorites.

The charismatic leads were well-suited for their roles, and the supporting players also distinguished themselves with vivid portrayals. A couple performers were in the transcendent "West Side Story" last year, so they knew how best to work the gigantic stage.

Adorable Taylor Louderman, a former Muny Kid and Muny Teen, was sweet as good-girl Sandy, and Brandon Espinoza displayed much charm as the coolest of the cool cats, Danny Zuko.

Drew Foster and Arianda Fernandez brought out the edge to rough Kenickie and tough Rizzo.

Larry Owens and Amelia Jo Parish stood out as Roger and Jan, and Madison Johnson was strong as Frenchie.

Of the adults, Phyllis Smith was a crowd-favorite as Miss Lynch while Matt Saldivar was a perfect radio DJ Vince Fontaine. The biggest scene-stealer was Teressa Kindle as the dynamic Teen Angel -- she rivaled the Queen of Soul belting out "Beauty School Dropout."

Perhaps you have seen a "Grease" where they phone it in, where there isn't an understanding of the '50s teen culture that the material captures, and it's disappointing. (As in last national tour starring American Idol's Ace Young and Taylor Hicks).

This exceptional cast presents this period as if they were part of that innocence, that simmering teen rebellion that Jacobs and Casey accurately portrayed. You felt their bond as these friends -- Frenchie, Marty, Doody, Eugene.

Now 43 years later, it is a nostalgic walk down memory lane, but for those who attended high school hops and played 45s at pajama parties, the Muny gets it, and gets it right.

What: "Grease"

When: 8:15 nightly through Friday

Where: The Muny in St. Louis' Forest Park

Nightly through Friday, Aug. 8

Tickets: www.themuny.org; 314-361-1900

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