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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Thursday, June 06, 2019

‘Grease’ at Toby’s is the One That I Want

Nicki Elledge as Sandy and Matt Hirsh as Danny in Toby's
production of "Grease'  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
It’s pretty safe to say that virtually all theatre-goers have heard of or seen the American classic musical Grease in some form or another. Grease had been one of Broadway’s longest running productions. It spawned several revivals on Broadway and has played all over the world in professional theatre via tours as well as in summer stock, community theatre and in schools all over the U.S.

The 1978 movie with the same title starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was a smashing success.  And even that led to a sequel. 

In 2007, a reality TV show was presented whereby a combination of judges and viewer voting determined who the two lead characters should be in an upcoming Broadway revival. And in 2016 a live TV presentation was aired.

Therefore, in so myriad ways through the years this beloved 1971 musical, written and composed by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, found a way into the hearts of so many. So it is fitting that the bouncy nostalgic 1950’s era production is currently playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia and it, too, can be characterized as a smash.

Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick directed and choreographed this vibrant masterpiece with supreme skill and vision. The precise staging and period aesthetics are matched by an utterly superb young but experienced cast whose dance moves are dazzling and whose vocals are sparkling.

Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings’ six-piece orchestra is in total synch with the performances, never overwhelming the vocals. Janine Sunday designed a splendid array of 1950’s costumes including black jeans, black tight t-shirts and black leather jackets for the male characters and cheerleading uniforms or below-the-knee pastel-colored skirts for the female characters.

Lynn Joslin’s lighting design is captivating and creative. And Mark Smedley’s sound design brings crystal clear audio to Toby’s in-the-round theater.

Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins kept things simple allowing the audience to focus on the performers on the stage, as they should. This doesn’t mean that the stage was bare save for the cast.  Awesome set pieces from diner booths to a miniature Chevy convertible dubbed “Greased Lightning” amplified the presentation so adroitly.

"...an utterly superb young but experienced cast whose dance moves are dazzling and whose vocals are sparkling."

In addition, a variety of posters are mounted on the walls around the theater denoting the cultural charm of that bygone era.  You would see a poster of James Dean or an advertisement for a box of Frosted Flakes or a poster of TV shows Lassie or Howdy Doody and even cigarette ads—so commonplace during that period—like Lucky Strikes.  While the audience enjoys the fabulous buffet prior to the show, they can peruse these posters and get squarely into the mood.  So cool!

The plot, probably familiar to most due to the show’s prolific exposure, has undergone some tweaking in terms of score and dialogue during its course.  Yet, it continues to center on the relationships between lead characters Danny Zuko (played brilliantly by Helen Hayes Award winner Matt Hirsh) and the Sandra Dee-like Sandy Dumbrowski (played exceptionally well by Nicki Elledge) and among their respective working class peer cliques—the Burger Palace Boys (formerly called the T-Birds in other iterations of the show) and Pink Ladies—at the fictional Rydell High School in 1959. 

While other characters emerge and their attempts at coupling form much of the comedic sequences, the focus remains on the ebbs and flows of the romantic relationship between Danny and Sandy.

Director Minnick steers the action with a light touch and keeps the proceedings breezy and fun throughout. Yet, embedded in the plot are such social issues as teenage pregnancy, peer pressure bordering on bullying, and gang violence amid the themes of love, friendship, teenage rebellion, sexual exploration during adolescence, and class consciousness. 

Although those issues are legitimate in any period, Grease is all about the 50’s in terms of music, wardrobe, culture, dialogue, and gestures. Its popularity over these many years is a testament to the show’s ability to entertain audiences of all ages and in all eras.

And entertain they do.   #hocoarts

The perfectly cast, energetic and multi-talented ensemble in the Toby’s production do the show proud.  Once the iconic production number “Summer Nights” is performed so effectively in the second scene of the first act, the tone is set and the audience is captured for the duration.
As one would expect in a musical with the pedigree of Grease, the songs are the show’s strength, and the cast delivers under the guidance of Mr. Minnick and Musical Director Rawlings.

A big dance number “Greased Lightnin” with the aforementioned hot rod rolling on the stage belonging to one of the greasers Kenickie (played strongly by handsome Paul Roeckell) is a crowd pleaser to be sure. As part of the choreography are flawlessly executed cartwheels by two members of the ensemble, the always athletic AJ Whittenberger and Shiloh Orr.

Other numbers with high-level, high-intensity choreography include the production numbers “We Go Together,” “Shakin’ at the High School Hop” and “Born to Hand Jive.”
Members of the cast of Grease  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
“You’re the One That I Want, ” another production number, has been a long-time favorite.
Then there is the hilarious song “Mooning” performed wonderfully by Justin Calhoun and Kalen Robinson.

As Danny, Matt Hirsh excels as an actor and vocalist.  With his D.A. haircut (see if anyone remembers what that is) complete with the requisite spit curl, Mr. Hirsh does his greaser garb proud.  He has all the moves: a cocky swagger, preening and adjusting his hair frequently to make it crystal clear he is the lead greaser and attracting women is essentially a given.  Mr. Hirsh’s strong tenor voice excels in “Summer Nights” and “Alone at the Drive-In Movie.”

Nicki Elledge plays innocent Sandy to the hilt. Also equipped with strong vocal prowess, Ms. Elledge performs very well in “Summer Nights” and the lovely ballad “Hopelessly Devoted to You”—a song popularized by Olivia Newton-John in the film version of Grease and later incorporated in the stage musicals. She also performs well in the reprise of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.”

As Betty Rizzo, the tough, gum-snapping, chain-smoking heavy among the Pink Ladies, Maggie Dransfield plays her role with relish.  She expertly performs the song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.”

The other outstanding lead performers include Paul Roeckell as Kenickie, Justin Calhoun as Roger, Taylor Witt as Doody, Nia Savoy as Marty, Joey Ellinghaus as Sonny, Allie O’Donnell as Frenchy, Shiloh Orr as Eugene, Crystal Freeman as Teen Angel whose performance of “Beauty School Dropout” is a goose-bump-producing vocal, Jeffrey Shankle as Vince Fontaine, recent Helen Hayes Award winner DeCarlo Raspberry as Johnny Casino, Rachel Kemp as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, and Louisa Tringali as Patty Simcox.

Rounding out the cast are the ensemble members Brandon Bedore, MaryKate Brouillet, Kourtney Richards and AJ Whittenberger.

The Toby’s production stayed true to Grease’s rock ‘n roll core, and everybody associated with it deserves an ovation. Even if you spent a summer night with Grease before, drive your hot rod over to Toby’s and catch this amazing production.

Running time. Two hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.

Grease runs through July 28 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online

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