For as long as I can remember, there’s been a glorification of the 1950s in America. Not the white-bread American idealism, but rather the teen rebellion seen through a James Dean filter. On film, George Lucas’s American Graffiti gave us the cruisers, drag racers and drive-ins. On TV, “Happy Days” married the world of the “squares” with the ultracool Fonz. And onstage, Grease focused on myriad teen angsts and romantic misadventures. All of those shows have common elements that make them, side by side, look eerily similar. There are rolled up blue jeans, leather jackets and poodle skirts. Everyone is trying very hard to be cool while struggling with puberty-driven insecurities.
Grease became a very popular movie a few years after America Graffiti, but before that, it was a 1971 stage musical. Set in fictional Rydell High School, if follows the antics of new girl Sandy, who had a summer romance with greaser Danny. She’s struggling to fit in, and he’s trying to be the callous tough guy — made more difficult by the face that Sandy has seen behind his harsh exterior. Along the way there are many cigarettes smoked and a lot of loose talk about sexual exploits (more talk than actual exploits). There’s a school dance, talk of a rumbles with rival gangs and a pregnancy scare.
Parkway Playhouse was forced to replace West Side Story with Grease, having lost the rights to the former when the authors boycotted North Carolina in protest of House Bill 2. Grease may ultimately be the better pick. It is a fun, upbeat show. The large cast is youthful and energetic. Director Andrew Gall taps into the huge resource of young people in Parkway Playhouse’s internship program and a connection to the East Tennessee State University theater department.
Colorblind casting of the romantic leads is an interesting choice, and it defies expectations. Richard Jackson’s Danny is African-American to Whitney Bates’s blond, blue-eyed Sandy. This is something that would have never been allowed in the 1950s. Here, it is treated as perfectly normal, — that makes a powerful comment on how times have changed without even acknowledging it in the story that unfolds onstage. Jackson is excellent as Danny. Bates gives a great performance as Sandy, who evolves the most in the course of the show as she goes from a shy outsider to a confident and dominant young woman. Connor Dalton also shines as Kenickie, the lovable lout. Myra McCoury perfectly inhabits the tough and brassy Rizzo.
There are many great moments and performances, as well as some dizzying dance numbers with the full ensemble filling the stage. The live band is a tight ensemble, but Andrew Oliver shines in particular with a blistering saxophone solo to open act two. Special mention is due to the Avery High School students who assembled a comically rendered miniature convertible hot rod that actually drives on and off the stage.
WHERE: Parkway Playhouse, 202 Green Mountain Drive, Burnsville. parkwayplayhouse.com
WHEN: Through Saturday, Aug. 13. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. $12-22