MIHS Drama’s production of ‘Grease’ hits all the high notes / Review

By Scott Weiss

Special to the Reporter

The Mercer Island High School Drama Department opened its production of the award-winning musical “Grease” to great fanfare on Nov. 10.

Playing to a nearly packed house, the cast and crew delivered a memorable performance of the time-honored show, complete with multiple wardrobe changes, a live band, and sets that perfectly captured the mood and feel of the fictional Rydell High, circa 1959, when the story takes place.

The show begins with a short film, shot on location at Luther Burbank Park, highlighting a summer fling between Sandy (Brielle Gradek) and Danny (Kyle Gerstel). Then, cast members appear on stage and sing the Rydell Alma Mater, before the audience is transported to the high school cafeteria, where we meet the “Pink Ladies”: Jan (Avril Henderson), Marty (Molly Atkinson) and Rizzo (Abby Weiss), and the Burger Palace Boys: Roger (Greg Chvany), Doody (Sidh Shroff) and Kenickie (Chase Urban).

Soon, Frenchy (Sadie Jensen) enters and introduces the rest of the gang to Sandy, the new girl in town, and Danny, the head of the Burger Palace Boys and the object of her affection. Sandy and Danny, from opposite sides of the stage, sing “Summer Nights” with support from the rest of the cast, and Gradek and Gerstel’s voices pair well together, especially during the closing harmonies of the song. Gerstel, described in the playbook as a “raging vessel of machismo,” does a remarkable job hitting the memorable high note (think John Travolta with his finger held high up in the air) and Gradek’s crystal clear voice and high range is a perfect fit for the role of Sandy.

Other highlights from the first act include “Those Magic Changes,” a mid-tempo number about a chord progression commonly used in ’50s music (C, A minor, F, G seventh), with lead vocals by Shroff, who blends comedy and seductive charm to deliver a performance uniquely his own; and a ballad, “Freddy My Love,” sung by Atkinson, whose prowess as a vocal performer really shines. Of course, there is the upbeat number and fan favorite “Greased Lighting,” featuring a lineup of the male performers belting it out center stage to a delighted crowd; Weiss, as Rizzo, dons a blond wig and delivers a snarky rendition of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”; the act closes with an ensemble performance of “We Go Together,” which, in the movie version, comes at the end during the carnival scene.

After a brief intermission, the show picks back up at the prom, MC’d by radio jock Vince Fontaine, played by Jonathan Aggar, who expertly delivers the character’s signature mannerisms and “cheeseball” slickness. The prom sequence culminates with “Born To Hand- Jive,” a barnburner featuring tightly choreographed dancing including the complicated gyrations that give the song its name. Freshman Joy Pearl, who sings the song in her role as band leader Janey Casino, makes a name for herself as “one to watch” with her sophisticated vocal runs and sultry voice.

Jensen, in her role as Frenchy, delivers an emotional monologue about her failed career plans before the curtain opens to reveal a dazzling Vegas-style set lined with “Angels” dressed in white gowns and hair curlers, and at the top, Teen Angel, played by Milo Mechem-Miller. Teen Angel serenades Frenchy in an over-the-top performance of “Beauty School Dropout” that has the audience in stitches. Jensen plays the good-natured Frenchy with a perfect balance of goofiness and gravitas.

Sandy and Danny have a haphazard date at the drive-in, pulling onto stage in a makeshift golf cart retro-fitted as Danny’s hot rod. At a party in Jan’s basement, the Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys do what high school kids do while Roger and Doody perform the upbeat “Rock n Roll Party Queen.” Then, the show takes a more serious turn when Rizzo confides in Marty that she is pregnant, teeing up the emotional high point of the performance, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” performed by Weiss. Weiss fully commits to the intensity of the moment and delivers a compelling rendition of the song, using creative and emotive vocal runs to illustrate the vulnerability of the character who, up until now in the show, has been nothing short of cold-hearted. This performance is perfectly countered by Gradek, who, as Sandy, makes the fateful decision to ditch the “good girl” image and don a Pink Ladies jacket. One of the more memorable moments of the show is seeing Gradek look at herself in the mirror while reprising Rizzo’s “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” only this time, Sandy has taken control of her own image.

The performance closes with a reprise of “We Go Together” and the cast receive their ovations.

The production is expertly directed by Katy Tyszkiewicz Ramsey and Jack Drake; choreographed by Youth Theatre Northwest’s own Mimi Katano with set design by Sarah Giese; stage managed by Kindred McQueen and Mischa Gregory with lighting by Lydia Hogg and Aiden Barham; sound by Fei Campos and Geoffrey Goffman; costumes by Emily Elbaum; hair and makeup by Maddie Chew; and an efficient stage crew.

As the house band, “The Gamblers,” featuring Aidan Hart, Matthew Pangallo, Quinn Haba, Alexander Aylen and Miles Silverman, bring a level of authenticity to the show not commonly seen at the high school level and Dr. Heather MacLaughlin Garbes provides the musical direction for the show. The whole thing is overseen with loving care by the head of the drama department, Daniela Melgar.

“Grease” continues this weekend at the school performing arts center, with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m. Tickets are still available but going fast and can be purchased online here: https://wa-mercerisland-lite.intouchreceipting.com/mihsdrama