With renowned shows, especially those with beloved film adaptations such as Grease, it is easy to fall into the trap of replicating what has been done before. While not necessarily intentional, divorcing ourselves from the subconscious influence of previous productions can be difficult. As a screenwriter myself, writing an adaptation of my favorite stories can be undermined by my own love for said story. Whether we realize it or not, our own viewing of previous productions or performances bleed into our interpretations. Our fear of ruining beloved moments or characters tend to overrule our own creative expression.
Under the direction of Whitney Havice, Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company’s production of Grease, which happens to also be CUTC’s 13th annual Kathy Murphy Student Production, seems to bounce back and forth between this fear and creative expression. This is not to say the show was not entertaining or a skilled effort by young, talented thespians. It just seemed to fall into that trap of attempting to live up to previous interpretations. Let me explain.
Finn Dallas, as Danny, had charismatic moments where he clearly connected enough with the character to have fun. At times Dallas seemed to be impersonating John Travolta as Danny. This is not anything to hold against him, as Travolta’s performance is the most well-known, but bringing more of his own personality to the character would have made Dallas’ performance even stronger. Additional performances and characters just seemed to be rehashes of the movie.
Natalie Deptula’s performance as Frenchy was a highlight. The only thing recognizable from previous incarnations was the pink hair. Deptula’s performance, which did not rely on the stereotypical ditzy eccentricities of the character, brought a different light to Frenchy. Instead of a Frenchy that seemed incapable of success and just jumped from thing to thing, Deptula gave us a Frenchy that wrestled with her insecurities and understanding her place in the world.
Also strong was Katie Witruk’s portrayal of Sandy. While Witruk nailed the naïveté and sweetness of Sandy prior to her big change, she seemed to struggle with the confidence that the Sandy of “You’re the One that I Want” seemed to find. Perhaps — I’m realizing this as I write this — such a performance is a good thing. I’ve never bought the fact that Sandy’s persona and confidence could change so quickly. Witruk’s performance, for me, brought a whole other dimension to the character. That perhaps the new confidence is really a facade. Or that perhaps this isn’t a story that young girls should enjoy.
Other outstanding performances are found in Benjamin Wendt’s Eugene which was an adorable amalgam of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon, and then age-old nerdy trope. And Maddie Michael’s Patty Simcox who brought an endearing sweetness to a normally obnoxious, slightly obsessive character. And of course Ruth Zielke who executed Rizzo’s tough but insecure facade wonderfully. In this performance, Zielke offered a Rizzo that was a delightful combination of Stockard Channing’s Rizzo, Mean Girls, and a little bit of Winona Ryder in Heathers.
The unsung hero of the show was the ensemble. Sometimes, perhaps even most times, ensembles can be forgotten. Just a small, unimportant piece of a larger performance. However, this ensemble made sure they would not be forgotten.
Sure, a musical about high school students in which a large number of scenes are set at the school would not be the same without a large group of other high school students. But Havice’s direction of the various ensembles, the Rydell High students in particular, brought an extra depth to the stage. Somehow Havice was able to extract excellent non-verbal acting from each member of the ensemble. For example, when the student played by Emma Loewenstein was assaulted by Sonny during Prom, her performance did not end once she fell back into the crowd and continued as long as she was on stage. Additionally, none of the members of the ensemble ever blended into identical characters. Each had identifiably unique personalities.
Outside of the cast, I found myself impressed with the show’s set. Simple and efficient, the crew made excellent choices that did not distract from performances and pulled you into each scene.
With all that said, every student performer involved in the show, from the lead to the youngest member of the ensemble, are tremendously brave for putting theirselves out there in such a public manner. To perform, especially in theatre, is to be vulnerable. Even when taking on the persona of a character, a performer must still place one’s out there for judgement. It is not an easy task, especially for those still finding theirselves and in constant social judgement. In spite of all the small imperfections, every member of the production left their hearts on the stage. This much is obvious. And for this the cast of Grease should be commended.
If you want a fun escape from this summer heat, Grease is the word. Support young artists, and show that you believe in them as they develop their craft.
Champaign Urbana Theatre Company’s Grease
Harold and Jean Miner Theater
2400 W Bradley Ave
June 21-23 7 p.m.
June 24 2 p.m.
Grease is directed by Whitney Havice with music direction by Liz Martin and Cameron Cornell.
Photos by Mike Heiniger