Friday, November 7, 2008

"Grease" is the word

Singing, dancing, a large cast, live music, vibrant costumes and professional coaches make for a theater production as well-oiled as "Greased Lightning."

Juneau audiences will have a chance to see these elements in action this weekend, when Northern Lights Junior Theatre presents the musical "Grease" in three shows at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.

When co-producers Cinnamon Simpson and J. Althea picked the play for their fall performance, it was partly due to peer pressure. Althea and Simpson wanted a musical with a meaty topic that related to things children experience today. Peer pressure hasn't changed much since 1959, the year "Grease" is set, so the message holds up; children today still belong to different groups with stereotypes attached. In "Grease" there are the Pink Ladies and greasers, cheerleaders and honor roll kids, but Althea points out that the musical breaks those stereotypes by showing the same behavior on both sides.

"The honor-roll kids, which are the goody-two-shoe types, aren't really all that nice and can say mean things, like the character Patty Simcox," Althea said. "Rizzo turns out to be nice in the end and even offers to buy everyone ice cream." Though the greasers steal hubcaps, some express doubt about stealing.

"It's about social politics," Althea said, adding that the play "shows opposite ends of the spectrum and we see good and bad in both groups so who is to judge who?"

With 37 child actors in grades three through 12, the cast is the largest group the theater has ever had. Working with large groups of children can be chaotic, but Simpson and Althea have effective techniques to calm people down. During the dress rehearsal, lead characters Sandy Olsson, played by Aria Moore, and Danny Zuko, played by Jahbril Cook, were practicing the drive-in scene and, to everyone's amusement, one cast member's pants fell down. Althea counted down from 20 until everyone was focused again.

Alyssa Fischer, who plays Rizzo, the "bad" girl of the school, said she has really enjoyed the experience of working with Simpson and Althea.

"They are a yin and yang combination that balance each other out in a very good way" Fischer said.

Fischer said she had always been very shy but working with the directors helped her get past it.

"It gave me confidence to step out of my comfort zone and realize that I could sing and act."

Tinaya Harris, who plays Kenickie, Rizzo's boyfriend, had an added challenge of playing the opposite gender.

"I really enjoyed stepping out of myself for awhile," Harris said, and "being more guyish."

Aaron Abella, a big fan of both Althea, his first acting coach, and Simpson, said he has been challenged by multiple costume changes in playing Vince Fontaine, Teen Angel and three other roles. He said he dreams of performing on Broadway someday.

Moore, who makes her lead debut playing Sandy, also has fast costume changes and has loved the musical experience, saying she was reunited with old friends and met new ones.

Simpson met Althea when she began taking piano lessons from Althea 20 years ago and the duo have worked together many times since. "Grease" is Simpson's first co-director role and Althea's swan song for Juneau theater. Althea now works in children's theater in California and loves working with kids.

"I love seeing their growth and giving them something meaningful to do in their youth. The great job the kids did stacked up and even exceeded the plays I have worked on down south," Althea said of the Juneau performers.

Simpson said one of the greatest challenges she faced was recreating the look and feel of 1959. She said since she and the children weren't around then, it was difficult for them to imagine what life was like. The costumes, designed by Shelly Wright and then brought to life with the help of dedicated parents, helped to create an authentic '50s feeling.

Stage manager and acting coach intern Sarah Everett, a student at University of Alaska Southeast, said she has enjoyed the experience of working with the kids.

"They are a wonderful group of children to work with," she said.

Everett said she didn't see the original movie because her parents didn't approve of the adult content. Althea and Simpson dealt with the adult material by using a children's version of the musical, but still had to cut additional inappropriate content.

Opening night will be on Halloween, and people who come dressed in '50s attire could get a door prize.

• Courtney Nelson can be reached at

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