The gangs of 'Grease' rock revived musical

May 05, 2003|by Chris Copley

The story is an American fairy tale. Good girl meets bad boy. Girl and boy fall in love, grapple with social obstacles, learn to overcome. Finally, they live happily ever after.

The story is "Grease," a musical story of growing up in the 1950s in suburban America. The stage and movie versions have been popular for 32 years, since the stage show debuted in a tiny community theater in Chicago.

The current Phoenix Productions national tour of "Grease" follows up its revival on Broadway. The show will come to Hagerstown at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 7, at The Maryland Theatre.


Danny Smith plays Sonny, a member of the T-birds, a tough gang of high school kids who act cool, strut for the girls, poke fun at nerds and strike a pose of rebellion against society.

Smith says the story of "Grease" is all about the T-birds.

"In the stage version, the story concentrates on the greasers, the tough kids, the outcasts," he says. "This is the Class of 1959 - the last of the kids in the '50s. The story is about dating, cars, girls, but mostly it considers Danny Zuko, the leader of the greasers."

"Grease" is fun, Smith says. The musical takes a comic look at what it was like to grow up and fit into the group in America in the '50s.

One story line follows the romance of Danny and Sandy Dumbrowski, a girl Danny meets while vacationing at the beach with his parents. Danny and Sandy like each other but come from very different cultures. He's a tough-talking, anti-social rebel. She's a nice, well-dressed girl.

Their summer romance ends when vacation is over - until Sandy's family moves to Danny's neighborhood and the two meet at Rydell High School. The resulting clash of cultures and social expectations is played out in school, at the local burger joint and other teen haunts such as a pajama party and drive-in movie.

The story appeals to a wide audiences, Smith says.

"I look out at the audience and see people doing the hand jive with us," he says. "They dance with us. They dress up as the characters."

Smith says the stage show of "Grease" is different from the movie version. The movie, made in 1978, focuses on the love story of Danny and Sandy, played by '70s stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. In fact, Smith says, Sonny is barely visible in the film.

"People who have seen the movie ask me who I play," Smith says. "I say, 'I play Sonny.' They say, 'Who is that?' From the movie, you wouldn't get a whole lot of the minor characters. In our show, it's the minor characters that come out."

To bring life to his character, Smith turned to another icon of '50s culture: the TV show "Laverne and Shirley."

"You remember Lenny and Squiggy? Sonny is kind of Squiggy-ish," Smith says with a laugh. "He's Italian. In the show, I wear little tank tops, a red satin jacket, gold chain. I'm a tormenter, the kind of guy who spikes the punch."

Smith, 29, is performing in his second professional theatrical production. A theater major in Texas, he moved to New York City at the urging of friend. He says he got lucky when he began auditioning in the Big Apple.

When he auditioned for the traveling production of "Grease," he went for the role of Eugene, the class nerd. But he read Sonny's part for several other actors. Ironically, Sonny was the role he was given by producers.

Smith says the show plays in theaters big and small on the company's tour. Some stages are so small they barely contain the large bridge that is the core of the show's set. Stages of different sizes mean actors must balance flexibility with precision. So the cast rehearses regularly.

"We keep it tight," he says. "You find yourself slowly adapting over a seven-, eight-month period. Things creep in that aren't right. Or we change things."

The show is directed by Ray DeMattis, who Smith says has a close connection with the show's early days.

"He played Roger in the original cast for 'Grease,'" Smith says. "In many cases, he knows the real, live characters - the real Rizzo, the real Danny Zuko. He brought it back to the original intention of the writers.

"It's a funny show. There's not much of a message: If you conform to the group, you'll be accepted. It's not a great message, but it draws people from 8 to 80."


8 p.m.

Wednesday, May 7

The Maryland Theatre

21-27 S. Potomac St., Hagerstown

Tickets are $40 to $50, plus service charges.

Call 301-790-2000.

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