Full disclosure: GREASE is not my favorite musical. As a rule, it’s one of those movies reserved only for girls’ nights every few years or some other context in which there are enough distractions involved that we can all forget it has no plot. But y’all. Serenbe Playhouse’s production has completely changed that image for me. Set outdoors on a T-shaped stage in a wide open field, this interpretation is the best I’ve ever experienced. And here’s why.
- That opener though.
It begins at the Rydell High School graduation with Miss Lynch, Patty Simcox, and Eugene Florczyk remarking on the classy behaviors these supposedly Wally Cleaver-type teens exhibited during their time at this learning institution. Their rose-colored speech is interrupted by the first chords of the title song as dancers slide in and Rizzo (a powerful Julissa Sabino) takes the stage, mic in hand, to own “Grease is the Word.” I think my exact whispered words to my companion, after dropping my jaw, were “Oh I was NOT ready for that!”
- Summer Nights. Need I say more?
As the intro to possibly the most popular song from the movie started, I could see the whole audience very visibly adjust their posture in anticipation. The whole song can best be described as completely satisfying. With the Pink Ladies on one set of rolling mini-bleachers and T-Birds on another, choreographer Bubba Carr incorporated a wonderful mix of “standard” sequences we’re all expecting to see from this song specifically, while building on them to bring a fresh look to the beloved piece.
- Triple threats on triple threats.
Since Serenbe uses the Broadway version- as opposed to the movie we’re familiar with- significant portions of the narrative in this adaptation look different from what some may be expecting. But only in good ways. Serenbe’s production is primarily ensemble-based, contrasting to the movie which shifts the focus to heavily showcase stars like John Travolta. This company-led musical demands that every single one of the core of about ten characters not only sings as the featured singer in a solo/duet (which, I might add were a delightful addition!), but every lead performer flaunts top-notch dance abilities as well. Not to mention the ensemble who we’ve come to assume at this point is made up of brilliant dancers. To answer the question all nerds are asking, yes, Keneckie sings “Greased Lightning” instead of Danny.
- Atlanta celebs.
Thrown in for cameos, local Atlanta radio personalities appeared in the show as well. Cindy Simmons (former co-host of Star 94’s morning show for a hundred years or so), along with her mother and husband, was featured as one of the stars of the drive-in movie that Danny and Sandy attend, and “new guy Brian” from Q100’s Bert Show slips in there as the Teen Angel at some performances.
- Rizzo. RIZZO, Y’ALL.
There aren’t enough words to express how much you must see Julissa Sabino as Betty Rizzo. She was adorable as Vanessa in IN THE HEIGHTS at Aurora last year, and as Rydell High’s resident bad girl, she takes her skills to the next level. Oozing with that appealing rebellious nature you’d expect of Rizzo, Sabino also brings out the heart of the character, reminding the audience this bad-ass is really just a teenager at the end of the day.
- It works in ways the movie didn’t.
Remember how in the movie the characters are one-dimensional at best with barely any development? This adaptation fixes those problems significantly. Patty Simcox has a thing for Danny, which Danny takes advantage of to make Sandy jealous. ChaCha doesn’t own the dance floor at all, but actually makes a fool of herself at the prom. As for the rest of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, their aforementioned solos/duets show these Rydell cliques are made of real people rather than space-fillers. Oh and they don’t even try to have that car race that was so epically lame in Fox’s GREASE LIVE that even Aaron Tveit’s lovely face couldn’t redeem those awkward five minutes.
- Sandy doesn’t change for a guy.
The clencher, the most significant element that makes this show a refreshing change from the movie is the way Sandy and Rizzo’s characters overlap. Rizzo sings “There are Worse Things I Could Do” to Sandy after discovering Rizzo is pregnant. In a move that ultimately transforms Sandy’s character, the song placement makes it about Rizzo directly telling Sandy that while she realizes she’s “the bad girl,” at least she has life experience and depth, unlike the squeaky clean blondie. “Sandra Dee (reprise)” powerfully follows right after Rizzo’s exit. With this in mind, Sandy doesn’t change her wardrobe and demeanor because she wants Danny to like her again; she changes because, boys aside, she wants to take chances and experience the world. She wants to be fearless. She wants to have depth. She wants to be Rizzo.
- India Tyree.
With a recent featured appearance in Aurora’s premiere of SWEEP, I’d add India to the list of Atlanta actors to see in 2017. As Jan, the Pink Lady in pigtails, her charisma overflows in the adorable delivery of every line, and the precision in her characterization makes her a joy to watch.
- The lovely men.
As much as I’d love to stick to serious, professional-sounding critiques, the reality is you just can’t talk about GREASE at Serenbe Playhouse without mentioning how attractive all the guys are. Michael Stiggers Jr. does not disappoint as Danny. Jeremiah Parker Hobbes’ swag is out of this world as Keneckie. Honestly, the men are all straight-up eye candy. Thanks, Serenbe fam.
- It shows us vast possibilities of where theatre can go.
Is it still an incomplete story with large plot holes and a leading lady that has no character? Absolutely. But it’s the most delightful two or so hours you could spend in this lovely spring weather. The execution of the music is spot-on. The dancing is nostalgic as well as inventive. The set takes advantage of modern technology through the use of a backdrop screen. The whole show utilizes an immersive drive-in movie motif from the moment you step onto the property. It’s one of those refreshing shows that brings something new to the table and reminds us why live theatre is an art form. It reminds us how a Broadway musical can be expanded into something new and exciting.
GREASE runs through April 16 at Wild Flower Meadow at Serenbe Playhouse. Click here for more information and tickets!
Photo credits: BreeAnne Clowdus