Rebellion is a teenage rite of passage. Caught in a strange, awkward stage somewhere between childhood innocence and adult responsibility, teens seek their own identity by pushing against their parents’ generation. They question spirituality, they question school. They express their individuality through clothing, music, and lifestyle choices that are often purposely intended to shock their parents and wave an emphatic middle finger at their teachers.
It’s an old story that has been tackled in stage and film many times, but few versions of the story are as famous as the musical “Grease.” Centering on the senior year for Rydell High School’s Class of 1959, “Grease” fearlessly explores the underside of the supposedly conservative 1950’s: sex, booze, rock ‘n’ roll, violence, and identity. Through lyrics that broke barriers when the musical premiered in 1971 (have you ever actually listened to the words in “Greased Lightning”?), we see children breaking their own barriers and learning what it means to become adults.
Mysterium Theatre has brought us this classic musical in all its glory. After decades of watching John Travolta in the lead role of Danny, it’s fascinating to see real teenagers play high school students. This is ultimately a play about finding your identity, and the use of young, fresh faces reminds us that underneath the tough talk, sexual exploration, and leather jackets lies the truth about rebellious teens: they’re inexperienced, scared kids desperately trying to figure out life and survive the cutthroat world of the high school.
This theme is central to the character of Danny Zuko, who spends the entire show trying to fit in and show off while softening his image just enough to keep good girl Sandy in his life. Cameron Moore allows us see underneath Danny’s tough exterior, showing us a greaser with real emotions and pain inside him. We also see hints of that pain in Victor Davilla’s Kenickie. Sure, he comes off as a badass, but check out his eyes when girlfriend Rizzo chooses another dance partner or suggests that her baby may not be his. The skin on both characters is only as thick as their black jackets, and both Moore and Davilla pull up just enough of that leather to help us see the real heart within their characters.
Rizzo and Sandy play off the tension created by their opposite natures, but, like their boyfriends, ably show off their inner turmoil. Rizzo is dark to Sandy’s light, yet each contains a hint of the other. Jocelyn Sanchez lets just enough innocence shine through her otherwise tough portrayal of Rizzo. Like Danny, You can almost tell Sanchez’s bad girl really doesn’t want to do most of the smoking, drinking ridiculing, and sleeping around she pretends to enjoy. Rebecca Knight plays her version of Sandy a tighter fashion, but that’s Sandy. Where Rizz is out of control, Sandy keeps her turmoil locked up. The interplay between the two reminds us that neither attitude is a healthy way to explore the challenges of teen life.
The cast is rounded out with a Breakfast Club of high school archetypes. Greasers Doody (Branden Martinez), Roger (Aldo Benalcazar), and Sonny (Darian Agredano) flesh out the bad boys with good hearts. Pink Ladies Jan (Paloma Armijo), Marty (Annamarie Mayer), and Frenchy (Sarah Entezari) give us a look at the special struggles of teenage girls and their own methods for coping. Jan turns to food, Marty to older men, and Frenchy attempts to escape high school altogether. Every teenager has their own conflict; the girls of “Grease” help us understand that on a deeper level than the boys.
The great thing about “Grease” is its versatility. Written to shock, it evolved into lighthearted exploration of adolescence- one that is performed on high school stages across the country (something its writers would never have imagined in 1971). It’s just as easy to sit back and enjoy the 50’s style music as it is to get a little red in the face at what the performers are actually singing about. It can be a show about nostalgia, a show about challenging strict norms, or just a rockin’ dance party. “Grease” meets you where you are and always gives you a great time.