We’re probably at a time in history where, unless you’re a very young child, you’ve heard of Grease, most likely the classic 1978 feature film that starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as the leads Danny and Sandy. Then in 2016 the Fox television network produced a live television special that melded elements from the movie and the original 1972 Broadway show (which itself has been re-adapted for the stage in the wake of the movie’s immense popularity), so you have to have been living under a rock to never have heard of Grease. And now Paramount Plus is streaming a prequel series titled Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, featuring younger versions of some of the popular characters like Rizzo and Frenchy. But with all that, familiarity with the movie may have theatregoers coming to see Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s latest production of the show a bit surprised by what is on stage.
Here, director Mark Minnick has gone back to the original source material to bring the O.G. Grease to life once again. There’s no drag race (which would be hard to do in a small theatre), no carnival, songs are in different places than they are in the movie, Teen Angel is not Frankie Avalon … so if you’re a fan of the movie, consider this production of Grease as seeing this story for the first time if you’ve never seen it before (Toby’s last presented the show in 2019). Of course, you probably know the story but in a nutshell, students from Rydell High School are returning after the summer break and bad boy Danny Zuko (Patrick Gover) tries to impress his friends with stories about the girl he met at the beach. New girl Sandy (Cassie Saunders) tells her new friends about the boy she met at the beach. One of the girls, Betty Rizzo (Alicia Osborn), puts two and two together and “introduces” Sandy to Danny to watch the sparks fly, sending Danny into a panic in front of his friends because this sweet, young woman is definitely not like anyone Danny has dated before. This being high school, everyone has relationship drama and the question remains if our two lovebirds will eventually be the one that they want.
It’s a very different experience watching Grease on the stage of Toby’s Dinner Theatre because you go in with certain expectations, and while there are some familiar elements, it’s quite different in places as well. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s interesting to see a different take on material that we’re all pretty familiar with. Minnick imbues the show with a fond nostalgia of the late 1950s through his cast and the production design. Everyone feels properly of the period – or at least what we imagine that period to be based on how we’ve seen characters like these portrayed in movies and on TV – and it all works very well.
Minnick is also the show’s choreographer, and once again he’s come up with a couple of showstoppers with the “Greased Lighting” and “Hand Jive” numbers (the school dance and “Hand Jive” scene comes at the top of Act II and, for the first time, audience members are given a two minute warning to return to their seats because it’s such a massive number that you’ll have to wait in the lobby until it’s done). The choreography is very energetic and in this tight space no one misses a beat, no one bumps into each other, which I always find a bit miraculous. That must be especially difficult when the entire cast is on stage for the “Hand Jive” and even more difficult when you have a large, mobile prop like a car (or a golf cart dressed as a car) on stage. But Minnick and his amazing cast pull it all off with the greatest of ease.
And the cast. Gover and Saunders have some huge footprints to follow in with Travolta and Newton-John pretty much indelible in the roles of Danny and Sandy. But they each make the characters their own. Gover has become a familiar face at Toby’s with his starring performances in Rocky – The Musical and Ghost – The Musical, and while he may be bringing a bit of his Rocky Balboa to the role of Danny, it’s certainly appropriate for the greaser. He also handles the character’s tough and tender sides very well, and his strong voice shines, especially in his “Summer Nights” duet with Saunders. He also handles the comedic moments, like Danny’s attempt at track and field, very well (he was a hoot in Something Rotten and needs to get more comedic roles on his resumé). Saunders actually has the tougher role of Sandy because the character is just always so nice and “square,” basically trying to maintain that “nice girl” image throughout the entire show (and I still don’t know that the message the show sends about changing yourself to get a boy is the right one, especially when the boy also tries to change and in the end can stay himself). But Saunders brings a sweet innocence to Sandy, and she carries the signature song “Hopelessly Devoted to You” well (and hearing it now still makes my heart ache over the loss of Olivia Newton-John). Over all, two very strong performances that carry the show.
I have to also give a mention to Alicia Osborn in the role of Rizzo. She nails it, and if you’re a fan of Stockard Channing’s performance in the movie, you will not be disappointed by Osborn. She’s got the look, the attitude, the voice to belt out a tune (putting every ounce of emotion into “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”), the whole package. Osborn has appeared in a few other shows at Toby’s, but this one has really put her talents in the spotlight. Brava!
It’s hard to single out all of the supporting cast members because they’re all great, but sometimes the actor gets lucky with a character who gets to steal a bit more of the spotlight than the other supporting members. This time around, some of the scene stealers are Brooke Bloomquist as Patty Simcox, really pouring it on as that one girl with just a little too much school spirit; Dereck Atwater as Eugene, the ever-optimistic school nerd; and Emily Flack as the squeaky-voiced Frenchy, usually the comic relief among the Pink Ladies, but she brings just enough pathos to the character that we all feel bad for her when she flunks out of beauty school. The rest of the supporting cast of characters all do some great work here (Asia-Ligé Arnold blows the roof off of the joint with her “Beauty School Dropout” number), and if I have one critique it’s just that, in my opinion, Calvin Malone’s Kenickie is such a little too aggressive and hard-edged from start to finish, but he does get to cut loose with the “Greased Lightning” number.
It’s great to see a show like this where you’re so close to the action that you almost feel as if you’re part of it. That closeness also lets you see the actors’ faces much better than you could if this were presented on a proscenium stage. In the round, you can see their facial expressions and body language and I take great joy in watching the actors who may be in a scene reacting to the action around them. Everyone one of them looks like this is the first time they’ve seen any of this happen. Each and every one of these talented people on the Toby’s stage performs this show several times a week as if it were the first time every night. The night I saw the show, it was the second time that day they had done it and there was no sign of fatigue. Plus they set up the tables ahead of the audience arrival, and act as servers before the show and during intermission! These actors are really put through their paces at Toby’s but they clearly love what they are doing.
The show’s technical aspects – scenic design, costume design, lighting, and sound – are all top-notch, and the orchestra led by Nathan Scavilla (or Ross Scott Rawlings, depending on the performance) never hits a wrong note. The sound design kept the actors’ voices perfectly balanced with the music, which is always a plus. Over all it’s another terrific production that includes a delicious meal, dessert and the specialty drink “The Pink Lady,” a frozen strawberry drink that comes in adult and kid-friendly versions, and you get to keep the glass! If you’re looking for an evening of entertainment for the whole family, head on over to Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland, where Grease is still the word.
GREASE at Toby’s Dinner Theatre runs through June 11th. Tickets and information are at tobysdinnertheatre.com. (note: fog, haze, and strobe effects may be used in this production.)
- Chuck Duncan has been the film critic for Baltimore OUTloud and its various incarnations for 20 years. He was previously a film and TV critic for CliqueClack.com and now owns the pop culture website Hotchka.com where he reviews films, TV shows and theatre. Chuck is the head judge for the annual 29 Days Later Film Project, and works for Anne Arundel County's PEG Studio