The last time I performed in “Grease,” the 1972 Tony Award-winning musical about mythical Rydell High in 1959, I was Teen Angel and Johnny Casino in summer camp.
I auditioned to be Teen Angel in the New Tampa Players production of “Grease” — which missed selling out all six shows in the new New Tampa Performing Arts Center by fewer than 10 seats total — but the role rightly went to the much more talented Trevor Lloyd (more on him in a bit).
Instead, I portrayed radio DJ “The Main Brain” Vince Fontaine and was officially the oldest member of an incredible cast of mostly “kids” ages 15-34 — and loved every minute of it.
With five cast members either still in or having just graduated from high school, NTP’s “Grease” had the look and feel of the Broadway hit and the cast didn’t disappoint. Under the direction and musical direction of G. Frank Meekins, with great choreography by Sarah Walston, these very young performers wowed close to 2,000 people between the six shows.
“We’re season ticket holders at the Straz Center (in downtown Tampa),” one couple told me after the first performance. “And this was a good as anything we’ve seen there.”
Were they kidding or exaggerating? Not in my book. Real-life substitute teacher Dylan Fidler was a powerhouse as Danny, especially his hand jive contest-winning duet dance with Makayla Raines as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, and crowd-pleasing karaoke favorite duet “Summer Nights” with Olivia Carr’s innocent (but later transformed) Sandy. At 17, “Liv” owns her own music business and she and Dylan also got high marks for the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta duet “You’re the One that I Want” from the hit 1978 movie version of the show.
But, the rest of the cast members were all so talented and fun to work with, too.
Kyle Fisher, who works for USAA Insurance, was perfectly cast as Kenickie. His rendition of “Greased Lightning,” with Walston’s outstanding choreography with both the full-sized 1957 Chrysler and most of the guys in the cast, definitely rocked the house.
Target employee Jake Veit, 22, who was rightfully likened to late-‘50s pop star Ricky Nelson by Broadway World.com reviewer Peter Nason, charmed while singing “Those Magic Changes,” while the duet between 18-year-old Tripp Peavyhouse (as Roger, aka “Rump”) and University of Tampa musical theatre major Anna Jeffries (as Jan) on “Mooning” was so sweet and cute it gave me a toothache every time.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Heather Rich (Marty), who hopes to be a forensic psychologist after graduating with Psychology and Theatre degrees from the same program at UT as Jeffries, belted out a stirring “Freddy, My Love.”
And, commercial leasing agent Alyson Gannon was another audience favorite as the rough-edged Rizzo, whose sarcastic “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” was one of the best-received songs in Act 1, and her heartfelt “There are Worse Things I Could Do” was one of the top moments from Act 2.
Speaking of Act 2, Lloyd, who previously wrote for another local publication and who currently writes for Savvy Dealer automotive websites, was a super-cool Johnny Casino on “Born to Hand Jive” and a true show-stopper as the Teen Angel on “Beauty School Dropout.” Oh, how I wish I could match Trevor’s falsetto. “Dropout” also featured most of the female cast members in pyramidic hair curlers providing comic relief. Props also go out to Chelsea Orvis, an ensemble player who not only rejects my Vince character at the dance but who also sang “It’s Raining on Prom Night” as a beautiful duet with Sandy — even though Chelsea was off-stage for the entire song, as it was supposed to be coming from a radio in Sandy’s lonely bedroom.
As for the cast members who didn’t have solo songs or duets, whether featured players or members of the ensemble, their backing vocals were always outstanding and their dance moves were super-impressive. One such standout was Michael Figueroa as the crude Sonny, who spent as much time being battered around the stage by Kenickie, Danny and even stay-at-home mom Suzanne Bainbridge’s Miss Lynch character when he wasn’t turning cartwheels or other athletic dance moves (which he says he learned how to do from the Just Dance! video game; who knew?).
Ariyonna Thomas, who manages two local Join Chiropractic centers, was super-cute as the high school and beauty school dropout Frenchy, who loves her friends but can’t pronounce anyone else’s name correctly.
Although they’re also really good singers and dancers as part of the ensemble on most of the musical numbers, Starbucks barista Cassidy Haberland was great as Patty, the peppy cheerleader who’s sweet on Danny, while young substitute teacher Zach Smith provided lots of laughs as the bumbling class valedictorian Eugene. Meekins, Walston and NTP producing artistic director (and “Grease” stage manager) Nora Paine also did a great job of picking their ensemble players.
Not only was Raines, a behavioral therapist who works with special needs kids (including as one of the on-stage mentors during NTP’s Penguin Productions), amazing as Cha-Cha, her voice was as impressive as her dancing and her acting was spot-on, too.
Dakota Henry, at 15, was the youngest cast member. She is just starting her sophomore year at Pasco High, but she already is an accomplished singer who also has professional dance credits and is a standout in every ensemble dance number. Also fantastic was credit card processor Zane Sanrsour, who also learned how to dance from Just Dance!, but who somehow knew not only his own dance steps, but everyone else’s, too. I told Zane I would give him a much-deserved “assistant choreographer” credit for his efforts.
The remaining ensemble players also all had beautiful singing voices and auditioned for bigger roles, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t just as important to the success of the show, as they were the people most responsible for moving and locking down the brakes on the big, rolling set pieces between every scene.
Michael Neary, a remote IT tech for Stavvy in Boston, was Paine’s go-to guy for making sure everything was in its proper place on stage. He also earned laughs for his over-the-top solo hand jive during the dance contest.
Amanda Schapiro, a high school math teacher; Wesley Santana, who works for GTE Financial; and youngsters Mia De Choudens, a 17-year-old Wharton High senior; and Cypress Creek high junior Julian Rebelo, 16 (who also works at Sbarro at the Tampa Premium Outlets); rounded out the cast.
Yes, I was by far the oldest of the performers and had the smallest of all the speaking parts, but I can’t imagine that anyone had more fun on stage in “Grease” than I did. I even got my first-ever stage review from BrodwayWorld.com’s Nason, who raved about the show as a whole and called me “such a fun presence.” Thanks, Peter!
‘Shrek’ Is Next!
Although the cast had not yet been announced at our press time for NTP’s production of “Shrek, the Musical” (with shows Oct. 20-22 & 27-29) the auditions already were held and I chose to not try out, after seeing what a huge commitment it was to perform with this community theatre troupe. I can’t thank Nora, Frank, Sarah and the entire cast and crew (again, see pg. 28) for making me feel so at home. For “Shrek” tickets and more info, visit NewTampaPlayers.org.