Opera House’s Smooth and Moving Production of “Grease” at Thalian Hall

With its fun mix of unforgettable songs, well-drawn characters, and not-too-challenging themes, “Grease” hit that crowd-pleasing sweet spot for over five decades now.

The Opera House Theater Co. production of the beloved 1950s musical – taking place at historic Thalian Hall in downtown Wilmington until July 24 – hits all the right notes and, judging by Sunday’s raucous endorsement from the near-capacity house, should be a hit with local audiences. With solid performances and all-around production values, director Jason Aycock delivers an entertaining slice of summer fun.

We all know the story: After a passionate but chaste summer romance with charming bad boy Danny Zuko (Mathis Turner), virginal debutante Sandy Dumbrowski (Stephanie Prestage) is thrown into the turbulent social scene of Rydell High, where she struggles to navigate the world of the Pink Ladies clique’s jackets, budding boy gang the T-Birds, and their often annoyed obsession with each other.

The production of Opera House Theater Co. "Fat" until July 24 at Thalian Hall.

After an interactive introduction with the audience by Wilmington theater veteran Suellen Yates, who plays the marmish yet likeable English teacher Ms. hormone-fueled teenagers he is. (Although if you’re kidding, you should check it out some of the “updated” lyrics of “Summer Nights” in the 21st century). Plenty of extremely advanced choreography from Aycock and Erin Sullivan helps sell the song’s over-excited theme, and the show has engaging movement throughout, with a talented and athletic cast of dancers performing twisting leaps and adding great energy to numbers such as “Greased Lightning”. “We Go Together” and the Bo Diddley tribute/scam “Born to Hand Jive”.

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As Danny Zuko, Turner, who is a talented singer and dancer, easily transitions between playing cool with the boys and displaying nervous vulnerability with Prestage’s Sandy, and they share a palpable chemistry during their scenes and duets.

Mathis Turner stars as Danny Zuko in the Opera House Theater Co. "Fat."

Prestage plays Sandy more like a cipher, which makes sense because Sandy is always trying to figure out who she is, and she has a beautiful voice that’s perfect for numbers like the romantic “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

Stephanie Prestage stars as Sandy in the Opera House Theater Co. "Fat."

The tough character Rizzo has long been associated with a kind of maturity, partly because of her verbally barbed weariness, but also because Stockard Channing was in her thirties when she played “Rizz” in the 1978 film.

At first, Sydney Short seems to underestimate the role, but as she progresses – and uses her powerful hits to absolutely destroy her songs ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee’ and ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do” – she paints a realistic and compelling portrait of that girl we all knew in high school, the one who masks her insecurities with a tough, intimidating exterior.

Sydney Short stars as Rizzo in the Opera House Theater Co. "Fat."

Ethan Hall brings screaming, screaming wild man energy to the role of Danny’s pal Kenickie; Jacob Gruntfest becomes a teen idol in a mind-blowing rendition of ‘Those Magic Changes’; and Bradley Barefoot sings a near-perfect version of the villainous “Mooning,” delicately balancing its humor and beauty.

Kaitlin Baden as Marty sings beautifully in “Freddy, My Love,” and Katie and Mahn and Lily Zukerman show great humor and stage presence as Pink Ladies Jan and Frenchie, respectively.

Ethan Hall stars as Kenickie in the Opera House Theater Co. "Fat."

Set to steal the show is Brian Whitted, who does double duty by leading an outstanding band as musical director before descending from the sky to hit the high notes as Teen Angel in “Beauty School Dropout.” It’s rare that a single song alone is worth the price of admission, but Whitted’s performance is a well-deserved crowd favorite.

Other than Whitted, the cast of “Grease” is almost entirely white, which, admittedly, is how things “really were” at many high schools in our society in the late 1950s. Still, if never a show screamed for a colorblind cast, it’s “Grease.” A more diverse cast might have toned down the show’s more sexist and homophobic elements which, while reflecting its era, this production simply plays for laughs.

To be fair, the only statement “Grease” wants to make is a nostalgic statement without too many sharp edges, while emphasizing that the singing and dancing are exciting and great. In that sense, “Grease” is probably the perfect summer show, the theatrical version of an enjoyable beach read.

Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or [email protected]

WANT TO GO?

What: “Grease,” with music, book and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey; additional songs by Barry Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon. Presented by Opera House Theater Co.

When: 7:30 p.m. July 14-16 and 21-23, 2 p.m. July 17 and 24

Where: Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut Street, Wilmington

Information: Tickets are $32 plus taxes and fees.

Details: 910-632-2285 or ThalianHall.org.

About Madeline J. Carter

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