Grease is the word once again. Somewhere in the world, it is always 1959 at Rydell High School and a theater is performing the musical about the courtship of greaser Danny Zuko and goody-two-shoes Sandy Dumbrowski.
This time, it's the Patel Conservatory's Youth Theater Company, with a cast of 80 doing the hand jive Saturday at Ferguson Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. They're being directed by Alison Burns, who has been hopelessly devoted to Grease since she played Sandy in her Arkansas high school production eight years ago.
Burns, 26, puts her young charges through their paces with the infectious enthusiasm of a lifelong trouper. She sang her first solo in church at age 3 and headed for New York right after high school. There she studied for two years at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, then got hired for the national tour of Rent, playing the lesbian performance artist Maureen.
In July, Burns met the original Maureen, Idina Menzel, who gave a concert at TBPAC. "She signed a picture for me, 'From one Maureen to another,' '' Burns said.
Burns, who performs in TBPAC cabaret shows such as The Fabulous Fifties and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, teaches musical theater classes at Patel. She recently answered three questions about Grease, her first big directing project.
1 You have three weeks to rehearse a cast of 80 kids. What's the biggest challenge?
Since our youngest is 7 years old and our oldest is 18, I have to make sure that everybody feels engaged all the time. The second they have any free time, you lose them.
Grease has only 17 principal speaking roles, so I had to think outside of the box to find places for all the kids to feel a part of the show and not just as background. I've added reprises and a modern lyrical dance for Mooning. We have five soloists in We Go Together. I put together five girls as back-up singers in Shakin' at the High School Hop so each of them has a solo. Everybody sings chorus for numbers like Summer Nights or Born to Hand Jive — an 80-voice chorus. I've added some lunch ladies in the lunch room, 7-year-olds in hair nets serving up sloppy Joes.
2 How do the kids relate to Grease?
They're all into new shows like High School Musical, so Grease is like ancient history. They didn't know what the Mickey Mouse Club was. So we've been trying to get them all the references. We tell them to watch Bye Bye Birdie and other shows set in the '50s. Most of them had seen the movie of Grease and knew the songs already. So it's something that's still cool for them to watch.
We're doing a school version of the show. Some songs have been cut. They reworded Greased Lightnin'. They took out Rizzo's song, There Are Worse Things I Could Do. The smoking, the pregnancy scare — all of that is not in there anymore.
3 What advice do you have for a youngster who wants to go into show business?
I tell them to do anything and everything they can. Classes at Patel, high school shows, community theater, church plays — get as much experience as possible.
You see the kids who really want it, and you see the ones who are just having fun, and you can definitely tell the difference. The ones who really want it come up to me at the end of the day and ask, "What can I work on tonight? How can I come back tomorrow and be better?''
What's cool for them is that since I'm a working artist, they can see me perform, so I'm practicing what I'm preaching.
It's a tough business. In New York, you walk into a room at some auditions, and everybody looks and sounds just like you. It's a constant battle for what's next.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.