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Thursday, April 13, 2023

A Very Cool 'Grease' Rocks at Toby's

How do you not love a musical where one of the featured songs is titled “Mooning”? The popular show Grease, which is currently playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, has many reasons for one to fall in love besides the titles of the songs.

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 huge success.  And even that led to a sequel.

Grease takes you back to an era where spit curls and cigarette packs stuffed in the sleeves of tight t-shirts, and sporty cars, drive-ins, sock-hops and gossipy Pink Ladies ruled the day for teenagers. It is no wonder that this beloved 1971 musical, written and composed by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, found a way into the hearts of so many.  

And here it is (again). As in the past, the bouncy nostalgic 1950’s era production at Toby’s can also be characterized as a smash.

Working with an essentially fresh new cast from Toby’s iteration of four years ago, 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 a wonderful young and exuberant cast whose dance moves are dazzling and whose vocals are sparkling.

Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings six-piece orchestra (conducted by Nathan Scavilla on this particular evening with Mr. Rawlings taking the baton at other performances) is in total synch with the company, never overwhelming the vocals.

Janine Sunday stayed true to the era by designing a splendid array of 1950’s costumes including black

Cassie Sauders as Sandy; Patrick Gover as Danny

jeans, black tight t-shirts and black leather jackets for the guys and cheerleading uniforms or below-the-knee pastel-colored skirts for the gals. The costumes worn during the number “Beauty School Dropout” are unforgettable.

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 did a wonderful job with the set. Lockers are on the balcony to denote what would be ordinarily seen at a high school. Projection screens are mounted around the theatre's walls that capture images of yearbook pictures and other period scenes throughout. Streamers from the ceiling are used to decorate a school dance. Awesome set pieces from diner booths to a miniature red and white hot rod dubbed “Greased Lightning” amplify the presentation so adroitly.

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 by charismatic Patrick Gover) and the Sandra Dee-like Sandy Dumbrowski (played well by Cassie Saunders) and among their respective working class peer cliques—the Burger Palace Boys (formerly called the T-Birds in other productions) and the 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, sexism, and gang violence amid the themes of love, friendship, teenage rebellion, sexual exploration during adolescence, and class consciousness. 

"...the bouncy nostalgic 1950’s era production at Toby’s can also be characterized as a smash."

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.

The perfectly cast energetic and multi-talented company 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 Calvin Malone) is a crowd pleaser to be sure.

Other numbers with high-level, high-intensity choreography include the production numbers, “Summer Nights,” “Those Magic Changes,” “Freddie My Love,”  “We Go Together,” “Shakin’ at the High School Hop,” “Born to Hand Jive,” “You’re the One That I Want,” as well as others.

Then there is that hilarious song “Mooning” performed marvelously by Tony Lemus and Lydia Gifford.

The uniqueness of each dance number, the creativity and precision involved and the ability to perform the dances within the confines of Toby’s in-the-round stage are a testament to the guidance from Mr. Minnick and the performers’ talents.

As Danny Zuko, Patrick Gover excels as an actor and vocalist. With his matinee idol good looks, Mr. Gover 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. Gover’s solid tenor voice excels in “Summer Nights” using falsetto at the end effectively and “Alone at the Drive-In Movie.”

Cassie Saunders plays innocent and later, not so innocent Sandy,  to the hilt. Also equipped with strong vocal prowess, Ms. Saunders 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, Alicia Osborne does justice to her role.  She expertly performs the song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.”

Other outstanding performers include Calvin Malone as Kenickie, Tony Lemus as Roger, Brandon Bedore as Doody, Caelyn D. Williams as Marty, Joey Ellinghaus as Sonny, Emily Flack as Frenchy, Dereck Atwater as Eugene Florczyk, Lydia Gifford as Jan, Asia-Lige Arnold as Miss Lynch as well as Teen Angel whose performance of “Beauty School Dropout” is a goose-bump-producing vocal, Jeffrey Shankle as Vince Fontaine, Shane Lowry as Johnny Casino, Candace Foreman as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, and Brooke Bloomquist as Patty Simcox.

Rounding out the company are the ensemble members Angelo Harrington II, Alexis Krey-Bedore, James Mernin and Tori Weaver.

The Toby’s production stayed true to Grease’s classic rock ‘n roll core, and everybody associated with it deserves bravos. Even if you spent a summer night with Grease before, drive your hot rod over to Toby’s and catch this amazing production. Grease is the word, and is the one that you’ll want! But please avoid mooning.

Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission

Grease runs through June 11 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 410-730-8311or visiting here.


The full buffet menu is shown here, and the specialty drink is “Pink Lady.”

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

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