When Grease hits the Garvin Theatre stage at Santa Barbara City College on July 13, it will be the biggest show The Theatre Group at SBCC has put on in years, according to director Katie Laris. “Our goal with the summer musicals is to make them the production of choice in Santa Barbara for that season,” said Laris, who has enlisted two brilliant collaborators in musical director David Potter and choreographer Christina McCarthy. Together this creative team has gathered the most talented young performers in the region and put them through the paces for an all-out effort on this much beloved and seriously demanding show. Distinguished alums from every high school theater program in town will be performing, as well as top talent such as Kody Siemensma (A View from the Bridge, Cabaret) from the UCSB BFA program. Following a grueling process in January 2018, when more than 150 actors auditioned for the show during and immediately after the mudslides, this Grease went into high gear, rehearsing five or six days a week, 6-10 p.m., for several months. Combine that level of preparation with a massive Pat Frank set, and you’ve got the makings of an unforgettable experience.
Among the best-known musicals of all time, Grease remains something of an outlier in relation to the Broadway canon. For most people, it’s the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John film that they remember singing along to and not the raw, raunchy, and nearly R-rated stage show that first captured audiences’ attention in Chicago back in 1971. This production, like almost all the 21st-century revivals of the show, harvests the best of both versions and aims for PG, or at most PG-13. The rights to the material are held by the Samuel French Company, and the rules are strict. According to Laris, the ubiquitous cigarettes smoked by the young men of the T-Birds and their companions, the Pink Ladies, are not only written into the script; productions are specifically enjoined from dispensing with them. Contractual agreements aside, it’s a delightful experience for young people to play these roles, which combine the excitement of small-time juvenile delinquencies with budding romance and the usual high school status melodrama. Danny Zuko (Ben Zevallos) courts Sandy Dumbrowski (Tessa Miller) for the whole summer, only to discover that his crosstown crush has transferred to Rydell, where he has a reputation to uphold. For her part, Sandy must negotiate Danny’s unpredictable, hot-and-cold behavior while struggling to fit in with the rough-talking, streetwise women of the Pink Ladies. In a final transformation that has fed feminist criticisms of the show for decades, Sandy relinquishes her good-girl image in favor of a new persona that’s in part defined by a flashy pair of leather jeans.
For Laris, judgments of the show that deplore Sandy’s self-reinvention as simply conforming to a stereotypical male fantasy miss the point. “In the script it says that Sandy looks vibrant, alive, and more herself,” said Laris of the leather look, “and Danny is not even mentioned.” The director locates the impetus for Sandy’s change in her empathy for Rizzo, another member of the Pink Ladies who goes through a pregnancy scare. Ultimately, the show dwells less on these individual characters than on the way that music and love bring the school’s various subcultures together. It’s a celebration of the rebellious youth culture of the 1950s that was written later, in the 1970s, when hot rods, ducktails, and sock hops all likely seemed soft and warm compared to the edgy world that the intervening decade had wrought. However they got there, the kids of Rydell are all right, and with Grease, SBCC plans to show them as they live a little, love a little, and learn a little.
Grease plays Friday, July 13-Saturday, July 28, with previews July 11-12, at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre (800 block of Cliff Dr.). Call 965-5935 or see theatregroupsbcc.com.