Michael Stiggers Jr. as Danny and Randi Garza as Sandy in “Grease” at Serenbe Playhouse. The show runs through April 16. CONTRIBUTED BY BREEANNE CLOWDUS
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Theater review: Serenbe Playhouse nails the timeless appeal of ‘Grease’

It started out as a 1950s rock musical about a high-school hotshot who is simultaneously in love with a car and a girl he meets on summer vacation.

This was 1971. By 1978, the Jim Jacobs-Warren Casey musical “Grease” had been turned into a film starring John Travolta as Danny and Olivia Newton-John as Sandy. (For the movie, Barry Gibb wrote a new title song, performed by Frankie Valli, and Newton-John cooed her way through the saccharine “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”)

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I was a high school senior of ‘78, and I remember watching it at a drive-in movie theater with a girl named Dawn. Though I’ve seen a few stage treatments over the years, I’ve found the nostalgia-dripping paean to teen romance about as long-lasting and satisfying as cotton candy.

Leave it to Serenbe Playhouse to put the sizzle in the tale of the Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys of Rydell High.

In a clever conceit by a theater known for its site-specific installations, director Brian Clowdus has situated the story on a set that looks like a vintage drive-in movie palace. (Talk about a flashback for yours truly.) Patrons willing to spring for a deluxe VIP package get to sit in vintage cars parked between a bank of bleachers and a giant movie screen, which is used for projecting some mesmerizing dance videos.

Clowdus has also assembled a first-rate ensemble (featuring Randi Garza as Sandy and Michael Stiggers Jr. as Danny) that mirrors the diverse America of today. Happily, it feels totally natural that Rydell High, circa 1959, is populated by Asians, Latinos and African-Americans. Unlike some Atlanta productions of the not-so-distant past, there is no heavy-handed marketing effort that tries to sell the unconventional casting as some progressive political statement.

It just is.

Still, as always, Rydell High is a place where peer pressure, shaming, fumbled dating and sexual bravado are all on display. Newcomer Sandy, played with a natural grace by Garza, doesn’t know what to make of the Pink Ladies, who smoke cigarettes, chug cheap champagne and pierce their ears.

Julissa Sabino as Rizzo in “Grease” at Serenbe Playhouse. CONTRIBUTED BY BREEANNE CLOWDUS
Photo: For the AJC

But much more upsetting: Her summer crush is now giving her the cold shoulder. Yet compared to the troubled relationship of the saucy Rizzo (the delightful Julissa Sabino) and the smug Kenickie (Jeremiah Parker Hobbs), or the awkward machinations of Jan (the hilarious India Tyree) and Roger (Erik Poger Abrahamsen), the courtship of Sandy and Danny seems kind of tender.

Instead of playing Danny as a jerk, Stiggers portrays him as a naturally charismatic girl-magnet with a strong sense of self.

Among the fine character actors here are Terrence Smith (as Sonny), Shelli Delgado (Frenchy) and Paul Milliken (Vince Fontaine). And do get a load of the company’s hilarious Jersey-meets-Chicago accents.

The show really soars when choreographer Bubba Carr’s strong dance numbers coalesce with Bradley Bergeron’s smartly conceptualized video sequences and the excellent sounds of the orchestra. (Chris Brent Davis is credited as musical supervisor, Devin Porter as conductor.)

Costume designer Brandon McWilliams has great fun with the ’50s fashion: leather jackets, poodle skirts and prim dresses for old-maid teacher Miss Lynch (LaLa Cochran), who as it turns out is a big old flirt and sock hopper at heart.

As for the stage design, there are a few limitations, alas.

The Pink Ladies’ cafeteria scene transpires on bleachers (instead of tables). The drive-in setup means that most audience members are so far from the giant stage that it can take a minute to focus when the action shifts from the group to individual speakers.

But that’s a fairly minor quibble in an otherwise delightful show.

“Grease” is hardly racy material, but when Sandy emerges in her skin-tight costume to announce “You’re the One That I Want,” the sexual energy is real. My memories of “Summer Nights” and “Born to Hand Jive” go back almost 40 years. But until now, I never really gave a flip about these people.

This time, however, to quote the nonsensical “We Go Together,” “maybe it might be love.”

THEATER REVIEW

“Grease”

Grade: A-

Through April 16. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. $30-$35. Serenbe Playhouse, 10950 Hutchesons Ferry Road, Chattahoochee Hills. 770-463-1110, serenbeplayhouse.com.

Bottom line: The Serenbe treatment is the word, have you heard?

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