WILMINGTON — As theatergoers entered Thalian Hall over the weekend, they were greeted with signs and balloons directing them to the Rydell High School prom. The historic downtown theater was transformed by Opera House Theater Company’s opening of “Grease,” which continues through July 24.
The 1971 Broadway musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey follows 10 teenagers — five greasers of the T-Birds gang and five Pink Ladies — as they face peer pressure, rebellion and all the growing pains that come in high school, including heartache, a pregnancy scare, and bullying.
It is Opera House veteran actor and director Jason Aycock’s first time taking the helm of the production.
“It was 17 years in the making,” he said.
Aycock acted in “Grease” in 2005 and choreographed two high school productions. He almost took a seat in the director’s chair as part of Opera House’s 2015 season but the show didn’t make it onto the roster.
“The music, the characters, the teen melodrama and camp — it’s just so much fun,” Aycock said.
The Drama Desk and Theater World award-winning show is best known for its transformation onscreen in 1978. The smash film sent “Grease” — and lead actors John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John — into mainstream popularity. But the original play, based on playwright Jacobs’ high school experience in Chicago, was actually darker.
Assistant director Erin Sullivan learned as much from Jacobs firsthand while doing the 2010 national Broadway tour of “Grease.”
“Jim told me part of Rizzo was actually based on a person who went to prison for murder,” Sullivan said.
What audiences see come to life, though, is a girl ridiculed for promiscuity, who instead puts on a strong face to get through daily life at high school.
“When you really dissect the show, it’s about a bunch of kids just trying to fit in with each other in different frames of their adolescence,” Sullivan said, who is taking on the show for the ninth time (she also acted in Opera House’s 2000 production).
The Opera House cast consists of Mathis Turner (Danny Zuko), Ethan Hall (Kenickie), Jakob Gruntfest (Doody), Adam Compton (Sonny), Bradley Barefoot (Roger), Stephanie Prestage (Sandy), Sydney Short (Rizzo), Lily Zukerman (Frenchie), Katie Mahn (Jan), and Kaitlin Baden (Marty).
Baden is a first-timer cast in the production. As Marty Maraschino — “you know, like in the cherry” — she is pegged as the most sophisticated and worldly of the Pink Ladies. Marty has penpals across the globe and tends to fall for older guys. She is also the sex symbol of the bunch.
“One of the girls asked me early on in the process if I thought Marty was actually smart,” Baden said. “Absolutely. I think she’s intelligent and witty, but the guys won’t like her that way, so she chooses to be pretty because that’s where she thinks her value lies.”
The production showcases a different time and place in society; 1959 gender roles come with heavy doses of misogyny and sexism. However, Sullivan said Marty is an early view of empowerment of female sexuality.
“She stays single and she’s very confident in her presence,” Sullivan described. “Not much of her story changed from the original script to the nowadays script.”
“For Marty, she’s looking for something, some sort of connection, but is also just very secure in who she is,” Baden added. “She sees people, watches them, and I think she sees through their BS and façades — who they really are: their hurt, their worth, their true value.”
Sullivan said she told the cast, especially the women, as they approached the show to “flip the script” on how they view their characters. This was especially true for Sandy — the lead and love interest of bad boy Danny Zuko. Sandy is an archetype of innocence and do-goodness, who, by the end of the production, crosses over to the tough side, changing her demeanor and looks to please her man.
“Stephanie plays Sandy very strong and I love it,” Sullivan said. “I told all the girls: Make these women who they are on your terms — where you’re not necessarily changing for a guy but making a choice to put in effort and compromise what you want. It opened up the show in a whole different way for many.”
To do so, Sullivan said she advised the actors and actresses — ”a cast who is actually closer in age to real high schoolers than I’ve ever worked with on ‘Grease’” — to find their character’s backstory. Kenickie stands out; at face value, he is surly and tough.
“I told [Ethan], Kenickie might be the only one in his family who has a job, for all we know,” Sullivan explained. “What if his dad is a deadbeat and he supports his mom and siblings. Actors should give their characters diversity beyond what’s on the page; subtext is an amazing tool for an actor, even if the audience doesn’t necessarily see it onstage.”
“Grease” is the third show in Opera House’s current season. Aycock said the production includes additional songs seen on the big screen — ”Grease is the Word,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Sandy,” and “You’re the One that I Want.”
“We’re actually the first ones in town to do the show and include the four songs that were written for the movie,” Aycock said.
Brian Whitted is the music director, joined on Terry Collins’ Bandstand-designed stage by Wade Smith (bass), Cameron Perry (guitar), Justin Lacy (guitar), Shelia Hardison and Laura York (sax), and Mitch Herbert (drums).
“I love playing this music because people love this music,” Whitted said. “And I play to make people happy.”
The “Grease” score has sold 38 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling movie soundtracks of all time.
Aycock’s favorite song is an often overlooked cut, “Those Magic Changes.” It doesn’t appear in the film version, except briefly in a prom scene.
“It just captures that great 1950’s doo-wop sound,” he said.
For Whitted, the most fun highlight of the production comes with the daydream sequence “Beauty School Dropout.” He makes a special appearance as Frenchy’s guardian angel.
“Brian is a Wilmington legend,” Sullivan said of the musician, “but he’s never stepped away from the piano. Until now — and he knocks it out of the park.”
“Grease” continues for two more weekends at Thalian Hall at 7:30 p.m. on July 14-16 and 21-23, and at 2 p.m. July 10, 17 and 24. Tickets are $32.
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