Nearly everyone knows “Grease,” the iconic musical with toe-tapping tunes, incredible dance moves, and romance and drama at Rydell High. Behind all of the show’s glitz and glamour lies tremendous hard work from a dedicated team making the cast look (and sound) as good as possible.
As the first official New Tampa Players (NTP) performance at the New Tampa Performing Arts Center, “Grease” is no ordinary musical — it’s a high-energy ride through the fabulous ‘50s, complete with a 1957 Chrysler that has to be dollied on and off stage. A hidden army of talented workers ensures the show’s success, working diligently behind the scenes. They don’t often get the spotlight, but the show could not go on without them.
NTP producing artistic director Nora Paine, a homeschool mom of four and the producing artistic director, also manages the stage, with the help of assistant stage managers Kristin Nelson, Emily Buonaquisiti and aspiring playwright Mark Weisenmiller. With her headset on and monitor in place, the company feels secure as Paine calls out cues from a barely lit space backstage. Her techy husband Joshua, “her theatre saint,” and son Sebastian also play vital roles, helping with support and lights (while Keith Eisenstadt designed the lighting).
Paine jokes that her favorite part of being a stage manager is “going to sound very stage managery, but it’s when a set change goes well. The stage lights go down at the right time. The set pieces move in the choreography that you need them to. Everything slides in. The next set piece comes in. The lights go up, and the orchestra syncs all together.”
Nelson, a medical scribe and first-time assistant stage manager who has performed in some previous NTP productions, says, “My favorite thing has been watching the cast grow. I enjoy getting to be part of the magic behind the scenes. Creating this world was super cool.”
A recent high school graduate, Buonaquisiti adds, “I love working with the actors, especially during set changes making sure everything goes smoothly and safely.”
While the performers spend months perfecting their lines, vocals and choreography, the director and music director are the masterminds behind the magic. In this musical, those roles are handled by the same person.
A computer programmer by day, director and musical director G. Frank Meekins says his favorite moment was when, “we actually got our stage, and the production came to life. We finally had the space to spread our wings.”
Meekins says that wearing both hats for “Grease” required more effort, as his attention was split between the two different roles; however, having true directorial control allowed him the creativity to make the dialogue and music gel. “It’s rewarding when it all comes together,” he says.
Meekins also notes that, “While this show follows the movie that many are familiar with, it’s also a little more gritty and deals with adult situations differently than the movie did. We are actually performing the original Broadway version from 1972. We maintained (most of) the items that would now be considered taboo in keeping the style of society back then.”
Professional dancer, Atlas Modern Ballet founder and HCC professor Sarah Walston provided the choreography for the show’s memorable dance routines. She taught the cast the hand jives, jitterbugs and other energetic dance routines — a new experience for the ballet and contemporary dance choreographer.
“As a dancer, I love ‘Grease,’” Walston says. “The community feel has made a project like this less stressful with all these moving parts. It’s really been a team effort and a great experience for me to learn what can happen in a musical with a great community.”
You can’t have “Grease” without the iconic T-Birds leather and Pink Ladies jackets and authentic ‘50s attire. Retired engineer and current NTP Board of Directors chair Michell “Shelley” Giles and engineer/teacher Heather Cleveland meticulously assembled more than 100 different costumes for the show, going as far as to research if each fabric and pattern would be appropriate for the period. Both women say working with costumes is like solving a satisfying puzzle, especially with an extremely limited budget to purchase the costumes and the materials to make them.
“My favorite part of the job was being able to make some of the dresses,” says Giles, who is a self-taught seamstress. “As a costumer, I enjoy seeing the actors come to life on stage. My hobby is sewing. I sew everything.”
Cleveland adds, “You want everybody on stage to feel fantastic. I enjoy the creativity, starting from nothing and having it blossom into something.” As an example, Cleveland says, “We took Frenchy’s prom dress apart three or four times — a new bodice was made, and we hand-pleated the skirt. I’m pleased with the results of the work that went into that one.”
Behind the curtain, a small army of costume, prop assistants, stagehands and costume “dressers,” including college senior and aerial acrobat Emma Hosking, assist by waiting in the wings to help the actors with quick costume changes and to make sure they all have the props they need for each scene.
“During Freddy My Love,” Hosking said, “we made a tradition of dramatically lip-syncing along to the song. I looked forward to that every performance.”
Among the costume and stage crew, all coordinated by Giles, Cleveland and prop master Tami Carr (the mom of Olivia, who played Sandy, and Sean Carr, who played bass in the orchestra) were Amogha Kuppaa, Ereka Morton, Ryan Pettaway, Bella Otte, Tracy Stemm, Katie Guerra, Jannah Nager and Katie Carr.
Tami Carr, a retired children’s orthotist and prosthetist, is the woman behind all the props. From sourcing authentic ‘50s items to crafting realistic-looking food, this creative wizard turns trash into treasure… literally. She says she created Sonny’s “zipgun” from items she found in the trash.
Tami explains how excited she is for NTP to have a new home, “They do everything with such integrity and excellence. Over the years, it made me sad that people didn’t always see the shows because they didn’t have a consistent place. To have all these sold-out shows, I feel not just happy for the cast of Grease but for everyone. Finally, people can experience and appreciate what they do.”
Assisted by most members of the cast, the set stagehands, led by Paul McColgan, work swiftly and silently, changing scenes with precision and coordination, like ninjas in black. Scenic artists Leiann Klein, Kyle Billington, Tami and Olivia Carr, Olivia’s fellow cast member Dakota Henry, Alex DeJoseph and Joshua Paine gave each piece of built-for-the-show set “furniture” its distinctive ‘50s look.
In addition, sound man John Camacho made sure all 24 of the performers’ microphones not only worked but also had compatible levels of volume before every performance. Stagehand James Cass of Picture This of Palma Ceia also served as the show’s official photgrapher. The orchestra included Meekins, rehearsal pianist Rick Barclay, Stan Martindale (guitar), Todd DuPriest (drums), Josh Hollenbeck and Elliott Domagola (sax) and Sean Carr. Diana Diaz designed the “Grease” program.