Friday, July 11, 2003

Lightning strikes: Energetic performances Grease Arundel Barn's wheels

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Starting with a back-flipping entrance by Danny Zuko (Brad Bass), Grease is off to a dynamic run at the Arundel Barn Playhouse. The cast clearly has fun, and the excitement is contagious as cast and audience together relive senior year at Rydell High.

The show revisits the days when kids could make zip guns in school, restroom machines sold four condoms for a quarter, and enlisting in the military didn’t qualify you for welfare. This is a ’50s piece, and there is a desire to remain true to the original, but given the number of young children in the audience, having characters even fake smoking seems questionable.

It is a fun play about life in high school, with some important lessons for those who wish to hear: Peer pressure is compelling, being true to yourself is better than being a tease, ridicule hurts, and dropping out of school is a bad idea.

Perhaps, though, the biggest lesson of an adult production of Grease are the contrasts between it and the more common high-school performances based on the same script. Miss Lynch (Mary Jo Keffer) is an excellent tipsy teacher, raising a glass each time she appears on stage. DJ Vince Fontaine (Jim Appleby) is a leering and lecherous older man, who makes out at the prom just like any of the students. Appleby also plays the Teen Angel, who delivers a stern and dark lecture for wayward youth.

And an entire song is restored from the original, one usually not seen in high school: Roger (Daniel Petrotta) sings the hilarious love ballad " Mooning, " which is either about staring at the evening sky or showing off young bare bottoms in public.

It is in " Mooning " and many of the other songs that the choreography really shows what Grease is about. There is flirty touching and peeking, as well as strong grinding and suggestive body language no principal would permit in the auditorium.

The girls, led by Ellen Domingos (as Betty Rizzo) and Kendra Doyle (as Sandy Dumbrowski), dance and sing their hearts out. The Burger Palace Boys dance, too, in a macho style that at times includes push-ups. Ryland Shelton (as Sonny) is the smoothest mover, but Bass (as Danny) is the star of these dance numbers, performing Elvis moves and a twisting round-off across the entire stage.

On opening night Bass literally danced his pants off at the prom, splitting the crotch of his trousers from stem to stern in a display that cracked up the entire cast as well as the audience. Admirably, the cast covered the situation while remaining in character, and had the presence of mind to let the moment ride, stopping the show as everyone — Bass included — collapsed laughing.

Petrotta (as Roger) retained the composure to ad-lib as the scene ended: Dancing with his sweetheart and " making conversation " the way awkward teens will, he said, " I split my pants one time, but not in front of an audience. "

It is truly a musical, with good harmony and a great three-piece band including two local students, Asher Platts from USM and Michael Whiston from Kennebunk High School. In a theater with no amplification, they made music that was easy to hear but did not overpower the singing, except when the singers’ voices themselves were especially weak (most notably Douglas Ullman Jr. as Doody, who just plain could not be heard). Again Bass stole the show with an excellent range and strong voice that conveyed those most high school of emotions: angst, unrequited love, and hope.

It is also a play, however, with character development and spoken performances throughout. A choice to have simultaneous and separate scenes from time to time showed the distance — despite interrelations — between the characters, and putting Miss Lynch and Vince Fontaine on as side shows during scene changes kept the action moving well.

The set was also cleverly simple yet versatile, going from high-school auditorium stage to playground to cafeteria and then the larger-than-life car, Greased Lightning.

In one sense, it is easy to play to a stereotype, but clearly these actors take their work seriously. Most are based in New York and were cast during auditions there. It is the sign of an excellent director that the actors have fun on stage, and enjoy the disco ball as much as the audience.

Written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Directed and choreographed by Robert Jay Cronin. With Brad Bass and Kendra Doyle. At the Arundel Barn Playhouse, in Arundel, through July 19. Call (207) 985-5552.


• What’s better than an outdoor performance of Hair? One at a field named for the Hindu word meaning " I salute your inner spirit. " Peace and Love Productions is putting on the show at Namaste Field in Acton, each weekend from July 12 through August 10. Profits support charities Peace Action Maine and Call (207) 490-1210. (Leave the kids home: Hair contains nudity, strong language, and unkempt manes.)

Generic Theater opens the Players’ Ring’s summer late-night series July 11 through 13. These shows are late — starting at 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and Sunday at 9:30 p.m. One play is Skillful Maneuvers by Dover native Mark Towle, following a detective examining a tornado-wrecked crime scene. A monologue, written and performed by Portsmouth’s Roland Goodbody, looks back 30 years at a chance encounter with a Woman on a Train.