'Grease' slides on to Washington main stage
By AMBER AGUIAR
The close-knit cast of this year's Pasquerilla East Musical Company production will bring new energy to an American classic as it perform its riveting rendition of "Grease" this weekend in Washington Hall.
Brian Seaman directs a cast of 25 students who have come together to perform a truly unique version of the familiar story of hormonal high school students from the '50s grappling with issues of love and life after graduation.
With bright costumes, constant action and lively song and dance, this performance is a tremendous show of energy. Audiences of the much-anticipated and highly amusing musical will be delighted with this distinctive production.
Adam Witmer, who plays Danny, recommended: "Don't look for any of us to just do impressions of past film or stage Sandra D's or Dannys and Kenickes."
As Witmer suggested, spectators expecting an imitation of the popular movie rendition will be surprised. The cast remains true to the musical's original script — a more risqué, realistic version than the film depiction. According to Tiana Checchia (Sandy), "The play was not written as a family show at all. The original play is dirty. It's a lot raunchier. And it's a lot more fun."
"The play is about fun, realistic characters that talk like you and I do in our dorm rooms," said Seaman. "It's got tons of the adolescent humor that everyone loves."
While the musical is set in high school, it contains many elements Notre Dame students can still identify with. According to Holly Hoffman (Rizzo), "It's not like we had to do a lot of research to put on a play about going out, getting drunk and hooking up. Everyone can relate to being a teenager and being retarded."
The musical is full of funny characters like Roger (played by Matt Baggetta), who constantly moons people and Sonny (Joe Larson), who is drunk in every scene. Each character is unique, with a distinctive personality. Betsy Kahl (Marty) said: "Every character has an original way of walking, talking and dancing."
And each actor developed those mannerisms throughout the past few months. "Brian encouraged us to shape our characters ourselves," said Witmer. "We've had to fill out background information on our characters and do improvisations to become more familiar with our stage personalities. Nobody is a member of a `chorus' — everybody in the show has an actual, well-developed character."
The cast is made up of students of diverse majors and theater backgrounds. "There's a wide range of experience from people who have been acting since conception to people who just tried it for fun. But we all learn from each other," said Kahl.
The group has been practicing five days a week, four hours a day, since they were cast in September. According to Seaman, "A positive byproduct of all this work we've been doing is that we've become very good friends. I hope that's what people will see onstage."
The cast practices together, works out together, spends time together on weekends and throws "Grease" cocktail parties. The group has even taken a trip to Canada together. "Twenty people in three hotel rooms. If that's not cast bonding, then I don't know what is," said Seaman.
"We spend so much time together that some might say we resemble a small cult," said Ryan Cunningham, who plays Doody in the production.
But the closeness that has developed amongst the cast helps during practice and performance. "We can read each other now, so if someone misses a line, the rest of us can help. Besides, we're playing friends onstage so it works in our favor that we actually are [friends] offstage," says Checchia.
The actors have helped with every aspect of the production, including choreography, set construction and advertisement.
"In the beginning, some of the crew dropped out, but the cast really picked up the slack," said Seaman. "There's a real sense of teamwork here. The cast is involved because they want to be."
Seaman and choreographer Quincy Starnes welcome the actors' input. According to Cunningham, "Our ideas are nearly always embraced and added to the show in some form or another."
Even costumes were developed in part by the actors. "Over Christmas break we went home and raided our parents' closets," said Hoffman. Thus, this weekend, the entire cast and pit orchestra will dress in fun '50s attire.
The musical is packed with energy and excitement, as each student, including those in the pit orchestra, exercises influence over the show. According to saxophone player Ruth Luckas, "There's a lot of improv. There's a score there that you play from, but for almost every song there's ad lib written in. So there's a lot of freedom and opportunity to goof around."
The orchestra stands at the rear of the stage and is always visible. The unique set design allows the players of the instruments to be part of the action, making the stage even livelier.
Set designer Alan Ahles developed a system that would allow actors to quickly switch from one scene and location to another. He constructed two large, moveable platforms that change from bleachers, to a car, to a couch, to a bed and back again, as scenes change quickly without break in rhythm or action while the audience watches.
While actors were waiting for the set to be constructed, they practiced on tables in the Pasquerilla East chapel. "By the end we'd nearly broken all of them," said Checchia. "There isn't a table left that isn't drooping in the middle." Ceiling tiles were another P.E. casualty, as boys threw girls through them while practicing stunts for big dance numbers.
Starnes developed these dance numbers with complicated footwork and fun props for the experienced dancers that make up much of the cast. "I'd never worked with people who knew what they were doing before. It's a lot harder to choreograph," said Starnes. "You have to be more creative and try to include things that will challenge them."
Yet, some of the steps proved challenging to the point of dangerous. Kahl was dropped on the ground headfirst when she and her partner tried a dance stunt in which she flips over his back. Seeing her fall, Seaman tried to show Kahl's partner how to correctly throw her. But in demonstrating the "proper" way to do the stunt, he too dropped her on her head, this time twice as hard.
Though the musical is full of fun, dynamic dance numbers that may look easy, as Seaman demonstrated, the cast's advice is not to try them at home.
This year's P.E. musical production of "Grease" is packed with a surprising amount of energy, excitement and fun. "People will think they know what to expect, but they'll definitely be blown away," said Checchia.
According to Nicole Swartzentruber (cheerleader/ensemble), "If they enjoy it half as much as we enjoy putting it on, then it's worth coming and it's worth all of the work we've put in doing it."
Besides, said Kahl, "When was the last time you saw a lot of men dancing in unison? You've got to see this."
All Scene Stories for Wednesday, February 9, 2000