The Highland High School (HHS) Harlequins are setting the stage for a foot-stomping, hand-clapping rendition of Grease: a 1971 musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey that gained a worldwide audience with the film production staring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in 1978.
Under the tutelage and direction of Lynda Keech, director of choirs for HHS as well as director of the school’s annual spring musical, the cast of 25 is learning how to dance, sing, get into character and deliver a smashing performance. The story centers around the love developed between good-girl Sandy and greaser Danny over the summer and the challenge they face when they find themselves in the same high school come fall, but locked into very different cliques.
While the original play and subsequent film production dealt with some more controversial elements of sexual exploration, teen pregnancy and smoking, Keech was quick to point out that the HHS version, while still confronting relevant teenage issues, does not “include those things. It’s still a full-scale production, but one that is geared toward a family audience. Over the years, the original lyricists came up with a very similar score that sounds almost exactly the same, but just removes the real offensive language.”
To that end, Keech and her cast have been working round-the-clock memorizing lines, practicing songs, dance numbers, delivery and character development. “I have a fairly young cast this year, and many of them have never had any type of training or background in musical theater, so it’s a challenge, but a great challenge,” said Keech, who has been directing musical theater for almost 25 years, the last four years at HHS. “It’s just me and some wonderful parent volunteers, so I have to do all of the choreography, blocking, staging…”
They’ve been rehearsing since January, and Keech marvels at “how far they’ve come. You really get to see them progress, gain confidence and learn the basic skills of acting and performing. You learn so much more about these students in this format, and I really enjoy the community feel of it all.”
Adding to the community feel of the performance will be having some HHS teachers as cast members, including science teacher Chris Sgro, who will play the part of Teen Angel and sing the infamous “Beauty School Dropout” song. “I wish we had the ability to fly him in!” said Keech. “That would be great, but we’re going to figure something fun out. I’ve always tried to include teachers, and it makes it so much more fun for the kids and the audience and really brings the entire school together.”
Junior Patricia Lamark is playing the lead role of Sandy Dumbrowski. “She’s the most like me in real life, so I’m finding that the part really suits me,” said Lamark, who also takes voice lessons outside of school, which allows her to feel much more confident in her singing performances. “I think the show is going to be great. It’s been a lot of fun to work on.”
Her co-star, Nicholas Gunderson, who plays the leader of the greasers, Danny Zuko, admitted that the part was “a little hard at first, because the original version had Danny being very sexual, and I had to take that back a step. He [Travolta] did such a fantastic job, and while my version of the character is slightly more tamed, I put all of my heart into it, and I hope that comes across.”
Rizzo, the sassy-yet-heartbreaking character made famous by Stockard Channing, is being played by Saige Greenwall, Frenchy by Janie Nelson, the hysterical Kenickie by Damien Stevens and Doody by John Beal.
Keech said that she could not have done the show without the assistance of all the parent volunteers, particularly IBMer and engineer extraordinaire Paul Krystec. “He has designed and built the perfect flats. They’re safe, they’re meticulously constructed; and he’s helped me with the set design, lighting…so many things. He said he always wanted to do something like this, but had to get an engineering degree so he could feed his family!” she said with a laugh.
One thing that makes the experience so enjoyable for Keech, even though she’s delirious as they come to the last weeks of rehearsal, is “that the kids don’t really mind having their parents involved. That’s so cool. Kids can still be kids, and the parents can be involved in a really fun and helpful way. With teenagers, you don’t always get that, and it’s special to have such a sense of community behind this production.”
The audience should be prepared to start tapping its feet and singing along to one of the most beloved and enduring musicals of the second half of the 20th century. The show is set to open on March 23 at 7 p.m., with a second showing on March 24 at 7 p.m. ++