Student talent in university theater and music departments is a bit like a lake in the Midwest — when it rains, the water’s wide and deep and when there’s a drought, it’s low and shallow.
If “Grease,” the latest production of the University of Maine’s School of Performing Arts, is any indication of its current talent pool, there’s a flood in the Class of 1944 Hall. The cast infuses the 1971 Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey musical about the Rydell High School Class of 1959 with energy and depth the material probably doesn’t deserve. For the most part, these young actors dig deep for nuanced and near flawless performances.
The credit for this high-octane show goes to director Sandra Hardy, music director Daniel Williams, choreographer Jasmine Ireland and dance captain Grace Livingston. Together, they’ve created a near seamless ensemble that sounds like its members grew up singing and dancing to 1950s rock ’n’ roll. The men’s voices blend together to make a deeply textured sound that send the score soaring.
Ira Kramer’s Danny Zuko is all angles and testosterone. Kramer was charming last year as the Prince in the Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Cinderella,” but nothing in that performance hinted that he could command a stage as he did Saturday night at Hauck Auditorium. His performance is reminiscent of John Travolta’s performance not in “Grease,” but the harder-edged “Saturday Night Fever.”
As Danny, Kramer exudes a cocky confidence that instills the 1950s-style songs with the swagger of the era. In his scenes with Sandy, the actor is able to show the audience a tiny crack in the character’s veneer that lets his heart sneak out when his buddies aren’t around. Kramer’s gifts as a performer will take him far.
The four men backing Danny up, played by Andy Cotterly, Brogan Kelley, Andrew Silver and Brandon Clark each give their characters a uniqueness that allows them to not be outshone by Kramer’s Danny. Cotterly is especially good at expressing Kenickie’s conflicted feelings about Rizzo, his girlfriend who tries to act tough as nails.
As an actress, Hope Milne has grown exponentially since last year, when she played the ingenue in “Spring Awakening. Her Sandy is bouncy and resilient but, musically, the blues inhabits her soul.
Under Williams’ direction, Milne turns the sappy “Hopelessly Devoted” into an anthem for every girl who ever fell for the wrong guy. Milne turns Sandy’s transformation from a “Sandra Dee” into a leather-clad greaser’s gal into an embrace of the character’s burgeoning sexually. On paper, Sandy does it for Danny.
Vocally, the girls surrounding Sandy don’t have the depth of their male counterparts. But Goldie Irvine, Nellie Kelly and Jessica Rogers create girls on the verge of womanhood, excited about and wary of their futures. Kelly and Rogers as Jan and Frenchy, respectively, sparkle on stage in their roles.
A weak link in this stellar cast is Allisen Donovan as Rizzo. While she truly captures the character when she’s belting out a song, she fails to show the vulnerability beneath the tough facade Rizzo dons with her Pink Ladies’ jacket to keep from getting hurt.
People who were born in the ’50s and lived through the decades that came after the days of greasers might leave Hauck Auditorium wondering what ever happened to Sandy and Danny, Rizzo, Kenickie, Frenchy, Doody, Sonny and the rest. Which women burned their bras? Who protested the Vietnam War? How many died in it? And, which of them taught their grandchildren the hand jive?
Those questions follow theater-goers home not because “Grease” is such an unforgettable show but because Hardy made her cast dig beneath its surface to give these flimsily written characters souls. It is their powerful performances as individuals and as an ensemble that make the audience ask after the applause dies down, “Who are they now?”
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20, 21, 22, and 2 p.m. Feb. 23. Admission is $15; tickets may be purchased online at umaine.edu/spa or at the door.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the character Frenchy in one reference.