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REVIEW: Sweeping Grease Rides Again (Chanhassen Dinner Theatres)

The ensemble of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ new production of Grease. Photo by Dan Norman.

Grease is still the word in Chanhassen. The classic rock-and-roll musical roared back to Chanhassen Dinner Theatres last night with eruptions of applause, hoots of approval, and some spontaneous hand jiving in the audience.

Rizzo (Ruthanne Heyward, second from right) introduces Sandy (Caroline Innerbichler, far right) to the Burger Palace Boys. Photo by Dan Norman.

The last time Grease played at CDT, back in 2006, it clocked in at a remarkable 97% capacity for the whole run –  all the more respectable because this included what’s traditionally a mid-winter slump when theatregoers decide to hide at home. With a little greased lightning and some beauty school advice, however, this energetic revival seems poised to power its way out of winter and straight through the summer nights.

There are worse things you could do than revive a hit show or two, but how does this new production exist on its own terms? That litmus test arrived two scenes in, with the iconic song “Summer Nights.” A palpable current of anticipation ran through the theatre as the first big production number approached; by the first chorus, Aleks Knezevich (as Danny Zuko) and Caroline Innerbichler (as Sandy Dumbrowski) had the audience eating out of their hands and hanging on every move. Intermission came all too soon for some, who had to drown their disappointment in dessert as they waited for the second half. (If this happens to you, try the Bourbon Pecan Pie or a glass of the Conquista Malbec.)

Not Your High School’s Grease

For those who only know the 1978 film, the most notable difference is that the professional stage version is more clearly a satire and send-up than the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta celebration. (This staging certainly celebrates a few moments in the film, but is very much its own animal.) The characters you see onstage have more rough edges, the dialogue has more trash-talking, and overall there’s more room for comedy, as in the sassy yet heart-stealing rendition of “Beauty School Dropout” by Kasano Mwanza (as the Teen Angel). The stage musical is also a chance to see what those three mystery songs on the movie soundtrack are actually about, in case you didn’t guess what “Mooning” covered.

Updating a Classic

This Grease looks slick from star to finish, and not in an everyone-matches sort of way. The new costumes by Rich Hamson have a distinctive pop that captures the variety of actual high school fashion in a pre-Target era. (Hamson raided the vintage stocks of area theatres in his quest for period-authentic fabric.) Each production number has a very distinct groove, with accompanying visual and sonic vibes; the new staging of “Greased Lightin'” practically hums with its dynamic ensemble of pulsing choreography, slick lighting, and the sound design around Ben Bakken (as Kenickie)’s stellar vocal rendition.

Greatest Hits

Caroline Innerbichler (as Sandy Dumbrowski) and Aleks Knezevich (Danny Zuko) in a tribute to the classic film poster. Photo by Dan Norman.

In theatre, as in life, it’s the little things that make all the difference – but who doesn’t like a real showstopper, too? In this show, you can have both, like Andrew Hey’s tenderly delivered “Those Magic Changes” – just listen to those opening notes – and Caroline Innerbichler knocking the torch song “Hopelessly Devoted to You” out of the park. Then there are the moments that surprise you, like how touching Rizzo (Ruthanne Heyward)’s pregnancy scare is, even before her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” begins.

As Danny and Sandy, Innerbichler and Knezevich have an electric onstage chemistry. This means a lot – without that key element, you’d kind of wonder why Danny’s playboy was getting so stuck on Sandy, and vice versa. If you bring kids, your sons and daughters are probably going to want leather jackets after seeing Knezevich rock out in his; this bad boy turn has a dark charisma that hits completely different beats than his earlier Gaston. It’s been three years since Innerbichler last graced the Chan’s spotlight as Ariel in The Little Mermaid; as they say, it’s good to have you back.

At the end of the day, you don’t want to read too many moral lessons into Grease – it is, after all, a satire. CDT’s remount is lots of fun.

Grease plays through Oct. 28 at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in Chanhassen, MN. 

The ensemble of Grease. Photo by Dan Norman.
The Teen Angel (Kasano Mwanza) gives some sassy advice to Frenchie (Shinah Brashears) in “Beauty School Dropout”. Photo by Dan Norman.
Basil Considine