The Cultural Arts Theatres recent high-energy, high-quality run of Grease at the Trustees Theatre is yet more proof that Savannah is undergoing a bona fide renaissance in the performing arts.
I suppose this renaissance is due to a lot of factors -- dedicated K-12 performing arts magnets in the public schools, SCADs overall artistic influence, an influx of new residents from more -- um, shall we say, artistically savvy areas of the country, etc.
But in any event, whats without question is that an up-and-coming generation of extremely talented young performers is making a lot of directors jobs in this town a lot easier.
Not to take anything away from Grease director D.J. Queenan. This relative newcomer to the citys theatre program seems to have staged such a dynamite show precisely because hes a newcomer -- one who doesnt have time to listen to the usual nay-sayers and nags who insist that mediocre is good enough for Savannah audiences.
Want a full rock band, complete with sax, onstage the whole show dishing out tasty 50s early rock licks? Check.
Want a real live hot rod -- courtesy of Custom Auto Sales on Ogeechee Road -- to roll onstage when its time let Greased Lightnin rip? Check.
Want an ensemble with pipes so strong and clear that the two leads are given a serious run for their money? Check.
Queenan has some powerful allies in this effort, though, chiefly a skilled musical director in Warren Heilman and a cast of strong-voiced, extroverted young performers who are so comfortable onstage youd think they lived there.
Wide-eyed, sweet-voiced Lauren Fruits simply could not be a more perfect Sandy. Yeah, guys, I know what youre thinking: More perfect than Olivia Newton-John?
But yes, Fruits not only ably sings and acts the role, but has a deft touch with Sandys more mischievous side (a side sadly left out of the film version of Grease, which made Newton-Johns Sandy entirely too squeaky clean to have any realistic allure for a leather-jacketed tough boy).
Fruits is well-paired with Nick Bushkar as the steely-but-sweet Danny Zuko. Bushkar is a charismatic and forceful actor with a very powerful singing voice -- Im talking heavy metal level pipes here -- but its not what Id call mellifluous.
Bushkar is clearly more comfortable singing than delivering dialogue -- which I suppose is better than the other way around if youre in a musical. Its a little disconcerting when he follows up a piece of low, nearly mumbled dialogue with a meter-pegging vocal display straight out of an Iron Maiden show. But, hey, maybe hes just saving his voice. If I had a voice like that Id save it too.
The stage version of Grease is substantially different -- and in my opinion superior to -- the film version because its more of a true ensemble piece. While the film was a transparent star vehicle for the two leads, the play gives the supporting characters a chance to really stretch out. Here again, Queenans casting choices live up to that promise.
Stefanie Selais brilliantly penetrating voice works perfectly for the 50s girl-group vibe of Freddy My Love, sung by her flirtatious and funny character Marty -- a bit part in the film who thankfully has a much larger role in the play.
Faith Boles is so strong as the hard-edged but soft-at-heart Rizzo that the other actors are clearly challenged by her. Luckily, theyre made of strong stuff and respond by lifting their games instead of allowing Boles stage presence and dynamic voice to dominate them completely.
Dannys sidekicks Kenickie (Jimmy Pember), Roger (Matthew Dixon), Doody (Kyle Merritt) and Sonny (Chris Godbee) make a great comedy team -- if an entirely lame street gang -- and do a great job of providing unique comic relief to a show thats already hilarious (not an easy thing to do).
No one could ever steal the show from young actors as aggressive and talented as these. But if anyone comes close, it has to be Robert Bush in his all-too-brief turn as the Teen Angel.
Flanked by a chorus of backup angels in curlers, Bush ascends to the highest point on the set resplendent in a tight, white Freddy Mercury outfit.
Ornamenting Beauty School Dropout with enough falsetto grace notes to make Frankie Valli blush with embarrassment, Bush -- for one brief shining moment -- shows the young whippersnappers how its really done.
Bio: A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series...A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series.more