UWO’s ‘Grease’ reclaims the stage

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Courtesy of UW Oshkosh Theatre Department– UW Oshkosh’s production of ‘Grease’ is different than the movie version but is still filled with the songs people know and love.

Kelly Hueckman, Opinion Editor

Poodleskirts and drive-ins, sexism and cigarettes: “Grease” captured the best and worst of the 1950s as the UW Oshkosh theatre department debuted its first musical production in over two years on Nov. 3. “Grease” follows the story of two groups of high school students, the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies, as they navigate growing up and finding their identity in the 1950s. The cast performed four nearly-sold-out shows of the iconic musical over the weekend. They followed the original 1971 production instead of the 1974 movie-musical starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. “Everyone has their own idea of what ‘Grease’ is,” director Merlaine Angwall said. “We’re doing the original version, so it’s a lot raunchier.” She was right: There were plenty of middle fingers and perfectly-timed F-bombs to maintain the authenticity of teenage rebellion and earn endless laughs from the audience. “The movie kind of cleaned everything up and sanitized it. It was very G-rated,” Angewall said. “Our version is definitely not G-rated.”

The show’s leading lady, goodgirl-turned-bad Sandy, was played by third-year student Alyssa Proell. Her sugar-sweet soprano was a perfect fit for the role and blended well with her co-star, Jordan Whitrock, who played the stubborn rebel Danny. While the two had a great stage chemistry during tracks “Summer Nights” and “All Choked Up,” Proell said she was grateful that the 1971 version they performed focused not only on Sandy and Danny’s love story, but the dynamic of a whole group of teenagers. “It’s not just a show about two people, but rather an entire group of kids in high school growing and connecting through struggles and challenges together,” Proell said. UWO’s version highlighted the talent of the entire cast with the tight harmonies of the Pink Ladies, the humor of the Burger Palace Boys and the impressive choreographic performance from Cha Cha, played by Mackenzie Williams. Of course, we can’t forget the smooth crooning of the Teen Angel and Frenchy, played by Luke Meister and Maddy Ebben.

One memorable supporting role was Rizzo, played by third-year student Lily Slivinski, who perfectly embodied Rizzo’s snarky, cool demeanor. Slivinski said that Rizzo has always been one of her dream roles. On opening night, she wasted no time taking advantage of the opportunity and immediately filled the stage with her sarcastic comments, perfectly-timed eyerolls and promiscuity. “I love playing villains and mean characters,” Slivinski said. “I love something about a character with a little grunge and seeing how vulnerable she gets.” It’s only when Rizzo found out she might be pregnant that her stoic walls began to crumble as she belted the emotional “There are Worse Things I Could Do,” a number Slivinski said she found difficult to perform. “It’s hard, and I connected to it very personally,” she said.

Courtesy of UW Oshkosh Theatre Department–
Sandy and Danny sang the duet “All Choked Up” to end the show.

Rizzo wasn’t the only supporting role that stood out among the dazzling cast. Her on-and-off boyfriend and hot-headed member of the Burger Palace Boys, Kenickie led arguably one of the best numbers of the show. “Greased Lightnin” featured the powerful tenor of third-year student Conner Andersen, who played Kenickie, as well as impressive back-up vocals and choreography from the rest of the Burger Palace Boys. The boys wasted no space on stage as they swung their Levis-clad hips and jumped on the fully-drivable car on stage. “I was expecting some sort of golf cart,” Andersen said of the infamous “Greased Lightnin’” car. “But the car was perfect, and it showed.”

Andersen, a transfer student from UW-Green Bay, said the best part of the show was the bond created between cast members as they reclaimed the UWO stage after so much time since the last school musical. “They’re basically like a family to me,” Andersen said. “I can’t wait to work with them in the future.” However, behind the red lipstick and hand-jiving, “Grease” has become one of the more controversial musicals in recent years, with some schools even canceling shows due to backlash. Critics of the musical raise concerns about the plot of girls changing themselves to make boys like them as well as some questionable lines like “Tell me more, did she put up a fight?” They often call the show “anti-feminist” and “sexist.” Proell said that Sandy didn’t exchange her innocent, prudish reputation for the bad-ass leather jacket and cigarette just to feel validated by Danny. “I believe that Sandy changes because she wants to embrace being different, not just for love, but for her own sense of confidence,” she said.

Angewall said that while the musical is a romantic-comedy set in the 1950s, it also addresses serious themes that are still relevant today, referring to Rizzo’s pregnancy scare. “In the ‘50s, a girl had no choice,” Angewall said of unplanned pregnancies during that time period. “You were shunned; you were sent away.” She also noted the lack of birth control options for women during the 1950s. She compared the poor situation to the recent Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which overturned the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. “With the overturning of it, I think it’s very poignant that this is still relevant,” Angewall said. Despite the controversy, the production’s iconic score, edgy dialogue and classic American pop culture caused the show to nearly sell out.

However, the UWO theatre department won’t leave the stage empty for long; they will perform the play “My Genius of Humanity,” which explores the experience of an Armenian-American family set during World War II, Dec. 7-11. A full schedule of performances can be found at uwosh.edu/theatre/productions.