“Wella wella wella unh, tell me more, tell me more, didja get very far? Tell me more, tell me more, like did he have a car?”
I woke up this morning with these lyrics spinning in the replay part of my brain. The song is “Summer Nights,” penned by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, from the 1978 movie, “Grease.” It was the summer of John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in the United States, but where I lived then, in rural England, punk was cutting its baby teeth. “Summer Nights” was a big hit on the BBC, and the bouncy, happy music made me homesick for Maine. I never saw the movie, or the play, until Thursday, July 20, when I saw it at the Maine State Music Theatre.
“Grease” takes place in 1959, a year located somewhere between the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” starring James Dean, who died in 1956, Elvis Presley’s 1956 hip-swiveling rendition of “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog,” the death of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in February of that year, and the early ’60s appearance of four lads from Liverpool, England who wanted desperately to hold our hands.
I was 7 in 1959, but I remember pony-tailed babysitters (we actually had one named Sandy) who wore bobby socks and saddle shoes. They snapped gum and talked on our home phone, constantly. When they weren’t doing that, they played our radio at top volume, and we all danced and sang to songs by Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell, Ricky Nelson, and Dion and the Belmonts.
Big muscle cars ruled the streets, and groups of adolescent, leather-clad boy greasers, or ‘hoods’, loitered on corners, smoked, and cracked rude comments in hoarse voices. By the time I was old enough to contemplate getting to know those rude boys, they were gone.
To provide a brief synopsis of “Grease”: New girl Sandy and boy-about-town Danny fall in love during one summer between their junior and senior years of high school. They say good-bye at summer’s end, only to discover that they go to the same school. Awkwardness ensues between them when Danny brushes off their romance to maintain his ‘coolness’ with his car-crazy greaser gang, the Burger Palace Boys. Sandy turns to the tough-talking, wisecracking Pink Ladies for solace and company.
Several performances in the MSMT production stood out, among them the leads, Neil Starkenberg (Danny Zuko), and Windham, Maine’s Chelsea Williams (Sandy Dumbrowski), Kevin Nietzel (Kenicki), Gerriane Pérez (Rizzo), Adolpho Blaire (Roger), Lilly Tobin (Frenchy), Samantha Schiffman (Patty Simcox), and Gillian Hassert (Jan). Actually, the entire ensemble gave it their all, and the performances were great. Maine State Music Theatre’s current production, directed and choreographed by Mark Martino, snaps with kinetic energy, joyfulness and youth.
I was blown away by the choreography, with how Martino moves people around, and the way Charles S. Kading’s utilitarian set allows that to happen. Colorful neon discs frame it all. Actors streamed into the aisles to sing and dance several times during the performance, which pumped up the crowd. Travis M. Grant’s costumes were spot-on for the period (where did all that leather come from?), and the campy, over-the-top glitz featured during the number “Beauty School Drop Out” was absolutely fabulous.
Grease is the word during this play. I could go into metaphorical spins on this, but really, fun is the word and why mess it up? The songs, including “Greased Lighting,” “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” “We Go Together,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want” dominate the play and are guaranteed to bring back memories to those of a certain age, while providing those under a certain age with new memories. Those songs will play in your head long after the applause has ended. And have I mentioned the dancing? The number “Born to Hand Jive” alone is worth the price of admission. Great production.
Grease is playing at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick through Aug. 5. Go to https://msmt.org/ for more information or call the box office at (207) 725-8769 for information on this show and on upcoming productions.