Poodleskirts and drive-ins, sexism and cigarettes: “Grease” captured the best and worst of the 1950s as the UW Oshkosh Theater Department launched its first musical production in more than two years on November 3. “Grease” follows the story of two high school bands, the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies, as they grow up and find their identity in the 1950s. The cast performed four nearly sold-out shows of the iconic musical at the weekend course. They followed the original 1971 production instead of the 1974 musical starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. “Everyone has their own idea of what ‘Grease’ is,” said director Merlaine Angwall. “We’re doing the original version, so it’s a lot hotter.” She was right: there were plenty of perfectly timed middle fingers and F-bombs to maintain the authenticity of teenage rebellion and elicit endless laughter from the audience. “The movie kind of cleaned and sanitized everything. It was very G-rated,” Angewall said. “Our version is definitely not G-rated.”
The show’s leading lady, good girl-turned-mean Sandy, was played by third-year student Alyssa Proell. Her sugary soprano was a perfect fit for the role and paired well with her co-star, Jordan Whitrock, who played the headstrong rebel Danny. While the two had great onstage chemistry during the tracks “Summer Nights” and “All Choked Up,” Proell said she was grateful that the 1971 version they performed not only focused on the story of love from Sandy and Danny, but about the dynamics of a whole group of teenagers. “It’s not just a show about two people, but more about an entire group of high school kids growing and connecting through struggles and challenges together,” Proell said. The UWO 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 of Cha Cha, played by Mackenzie Williams. Of course, we can’t forget the slick crooning of the Teen Angel and Frenchy, played by Luke Meister and Maddy Ebben.
A memorable supporting role was Rizzo, played by third-year student Lily Slivinski, who perfectly embodied Rizzo’s sarcastic and cool demeanor. Slivinski said Rizzo has always been one of his dream roles. On opening night, she wasted no time in seizing the opportunity and immediately filled the stage with her sarcastic comments, perfectly timed eyes, and promiscuity. “I love playing villains and mean characters,” Slivinski said. “I love something about a character with a bit of grunge and seeing how vulnerable she becomes.” It wasn’t until Rizzo found out she might be pregnant that her stoic walls began to crumble as she intoned the emotional ‘There are worse things I could do’ number. which Slivinski said she struggled to accomplish. “It’s tough, and I got very personally attached to it,” she said.
Rizzo wasn’t the only supporting role that stood out among the dazzling cast. Her on-and-off boyfriend and brash member of the Burger Palace Boys, Kenickie led arguably one of the show’s best acts. “Greased Lightnin” featured third-year student Conner Andersen’s mighty tenor, who played Kenickie, along with impressive backing vocals and choreography from the rest of the Burger Palace Boys. The boys lost no place on stage as they swung their Levis-clad hips and hopped 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 the cast members as they reclaimed the UWO stage after so long since the last musical of school. “They’re basically like family to me,” Andersen said. “I look forward to working with them in the future.” However, behind the red lipstick and hand-jiving, “Grease” has become one of the most controversial musicals of recent years, with some schools even canceling shows due to backlash. Critics of the musical are concerned about the plot of girls changing themselves so boys like them as well as some questionable lines like “Tell me more, did she fight?” They often call the show “anti-feminist” and “sexist”. Proell said Sandy didn’t trade her innocent and prudish reputation for the leather jacket and the cigarette to feel validated by Danny. “I believe Sandy changes because she wants to accept being different, not just for love, but for her own sense of confidence,” she said.
Angewall said that although the musical is a romantic comedy set in the 1950s, it also touches on serious themes that are still relevant today, referencing Rizzo’s pregnancy scare. “In the 1950s, a girl had no choice,” Angewall said of unplanned pregnancies during that time. “You have been shunned; you were fired. She also noted the lack of birth control options for women in the 1950s. She compared the poor situation to the recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.” With it being cancelled, I think it’s very poignant that it’s still happening,” Angewall said. Despite the controversy, the production’s iconic score, edgy dialogue, and classic American pop culture made the show nearly sell out.
However, the UWO theater department would not leave the stage empty for long; they will perform the play “My Genius of Humanity,” which explores an Armenian-American family’s experience during World War II, from December 7-11. A full schedule of performances is available at uwosh.edu/theatre/productions.