a kate west review
book, music & lyrics by Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey
directed & choreographed by Roger Castellano
at the Fullerton Civic Light Opera, Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman, Fullerton, CA
contact (714) 873-1732 or (714) 526-3832 or
(Box office address: 218 W. Commonwealth Avenue, Fullerton, CA 92832)
running through May 2006; tickets $25 to $49 (group rates available)

Most of us are familiar with the cult 1978 film "Grease" starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. What you may not know, however, is that it was a Broadway musical before that and slowly gained immense popularity until fans were clamoring for more. In it's 34th season entertaining the O.C., the Fullerton Civic Light Opera now presents the old-fashioned version just in time for some cool fun these hot summer months.

For those of you who missed the whole "Grease" phenomenon, the story revolves around rambunctious 1950's teenagers at Rydell High School. Danny Zuko (Brian Brigham) and Sandy Dumbrowski (Michelle London) meet over the summer and fall in puppy love and then unexpectedly find themselves attending the same high school in the fall. The trouble is, Danny belongs to the infamous Burger Palace Boys and is not too cool about displaying affection for straight-laced innocent Sandy. Of course, they reconcile by the end and everyone's happy. That's the basic plot, with a lot of rock and roll (and a few small sub plots) in between.

Director/Choreographer Roger Castellano creates a lot of groovy moves for the excellent cast and regales the audience with classic rockin' good tunes. Highlights include Frenchy (the bubbly Lola Ward) being serenaded by the delectably goofy John Schoenherz as Teen Angel counseling her in career ambitions in "Beauty School Dropout", two renditions of "We Go Together" by the entire cast and everyone's favorite - "Summer Nights" - with the whole cast recounting the summer tale of Danny and Sandy. The majority of the cast is great, especially Bets Malone as the tough-talking Rizzo and head of the Pink Ladies ("Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" and "There are Worse Things I Could Do"), Lowe Taylor as Marty the vamp ("Freddy, My Love") and Roger (Danny Stiles) and Jan (Colette Peters) literally mooning over each other in "Mooning".

Brian Brigham is a nice, strong, handsome Danny, matching the rest of the Burger Palace Boys and all of the Pink Ladies are delightful. The one notable exception is Michelle London who is unfortunately a vanilla, uncharismatic Sandy and whose voice is much too operatic for a rock and roll musical. ("Summer Nights", "It's Raining on Prom Night", "All Choked Up", etc.) Sadly, she doesn't really fit so it's hard to root for her. Everyone else is a lot of fun, including Jeff Weeks as smarmy Vince Fontaine who oversees the climatic dance concert, where the hard core dancing really begins ("Born to Hand Jive").

The other few problems have to do with the set. Scenic Designer Dwight Richard Odle may have wanted to convey an adolescent atmosphere with brightly colored cardboard sets, but for a professional theater, it doesn't quite match the rest of the production values. To be fair, they are housed in an actual high school, so that may have been the intention after all. What should be a highlight number, "Greased Lightning," (the Burger Palace Boys crooning over a hot set of wheels), is disappointing, especially in the odd dressing the car. It should have an earlier reveal, as should the neon sign of "Grease", but both end up in a spectacular curtain call; we really should have been enjoying these electrifying sights all along. Odle's costume designs are a lot more on target, fitting the period perfectly.

The live band is great, (kudos to Musical Director Todd Helm), as are all the dance numbers and the whole dance concert scene, although it is a bit odd to have the band way up on such a high platform. It's too bad that platform isn't moveable. As it is a permanent fixture, it dominates every scene, in spite of Donna Ruzika's lighting design. Also, Sound Designer A.J. Gonzalez needs to look into the mechanical problems of the microphone since the actors kept going in and out all night.

In spite of these minor glitches, it's an awfully fun show and the irrepressible cast totally wins us over. So it's definitely worth a look, especially if you live nearby in Orange County. (Note to Angelinos: it's a bit of a long drive, so bring your I-pods or books-on-tape!) There's even a sample study guide in the program by Carol Philip (Anaheim School District teacher) translating "Grease" slang into proper English - now, how fun is that?

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