High Street show celebrates 1950s with style

PLAY REVIEW /// ‘Grease’

PINK LADIES—From left, Jessica Gonzales, Haley Hallman, Nicole Fair, Jessica Bell, Camille Schwarz and Kate Fruehling star in “Grease.” Courtesy of Barbara Mazeika

PINK LADIES—From left, Jessica Gonzales, Haley Hallman, Nicole Fair, Jessica Bell, Camille Schwarz and Kate Fruehling star in “Grease.” Courtesy of Barbara Mazeika

Along with “Bye, Bye Birdie” and “Legally Blonde,” “Grease” is one of those mainstays of musical theater that continues to be a surefire box office smash, thanks to its young cast, non-challenging storyline and tuneful score.

Conejo Valley’s Young Artists Ensemble presented a scintillating production of “Grease” in August, and now the popular ’50s revival musical is onstage at Moorpark’s High Street Arts Center. Although not as dynamic as YAE’s version, High Street’s staging has its moments, with many outstanding performances, excellent choreography and solid production values.

Much of the charm of the stage show did not translate to the 1978 film version, which disposed of many of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s period-suitable songs from the original score, songs that drew attention away from the film’s main characters played by John Travolta, Olivia Newton- John and Stockard Channing.

“Grease” doesn’t have much of a plot; it’s more of a slice of life, focusing on the perils of high school peer pressure, which threatens to rip asunder the sweet “Summer Nights” romance between Burger Palace Boys hunk Danny Zuko and girl-next-door Sandy Dumbrowski.

In High Street’s production, Zuko is played by Kyle Buchanan Prescott, who sings well and dances up a storm in the “Born to Hand-Jive” production number (with Whitney Grubb as spitfire Cha-Cha DiGregorio), but mutters many of his lines and doesn’t know what to do with his hands, which remain limp at his side or crossed over his chest. Buchanan- Prescott is new, but shows talent and should be a force to be reckoned with after getting more experience.

Jessica Bell does a fine job as Sandy and shines in her solo numbers, “It’s Raining on Prom Night” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Jessica Gonzales is especially good as the tough-as-nails Betty Rizzo, queen of the Pink Ladies, whose verbal barbs are dagger-like.

Many of the best performances come from the supporting cast, most notably Danny’s fellow Burger Palace Boys: Jonathan Markham as street-tough Kenickie, Jack Cleary as would-be ladykiller Sonny, Michael Kronenberg as the clowning Roger and Noah Godard as the boyish, hero-worshipping Doody. Godard, only an eighth-grader, is a standout in his solo number, “Those Magic Changes,” probably the best of the songs excised from the film version, one that celebrates the harmonic building blocks of 1950s doo-wop.

Likewise, Kronenberg is excellent in “Mooning,” his duet with Camille Schwarz as Pink Lady stalwart Jan. Schwarz was not cast according to type (Jan is described as being chubby and food-obsessed), but is quite charming and appealing in the role.

Nicole Fair sublimates Frenchy’s ditziness but does a nice job on the “Beauty School Dropout” number, which showcases the always-entertaining Ezra Eels as Teen Angel. As a member of the dance ensemble, Eels can be seen executing his customary one-handed somersaults in “Greased Lightning,” something he is somehow able to inject into every show he appears in.

Haley Hallman is convincing as the perpetually chirpy Patty Simcox, a sugary cheerleader on and off the field, while Kate Fruehling beautifully redefines Marty as more demure than normal, using a Marilyn Monroe-style wig to evidence her self-ascribed worldliness. R. Shane Bingham is terrific in the minor role of the predatory, egocentric Vince Fontaine, a part he has no trouble hitting out of the park.

Arryck Adams and Julie Hackett do fabulous work confining the energetic choreography to the cramped High Street stage while Laurel Marion’s costumes are colorful and effective. The musical is produced by Kathee Boyer with sure-handed direction by Ken Rayzor.

“Grease” runs through Nov. 19 at High Street Arts Center, 45 E. High St., Moorpark. For tickets, visit highstreetartscenter.com or call (805) 529-8700.