TexArts is something of a unique animal among Austin theater companies — a nonprofit organization that focuses equally on training and education of young theater artists and on producing professional musical theater. With their newest show, “Grease,” the company has combined these two missions in a buoyant production that features several young performers who have been trained in TexArts’ academy.
TexArts’ “Grease” takes full advantage of the key differences between the stage version of the musical and the famous film adaptation. While the movie focuses on the characters of Danny and Sandy, two high school lovers in the 1950s who come from very different backgrounds, the play is much more of an ensemble piece that tells a variety of stories about the students at Rydell High.
As such, the stage version of “Grease” avoids many parts of the movie’s narrative that have not aged well. Though, ultimately, the message of Danny and Sandy’s romance is still that, if a girl likes a boy, she should change everything about herself in order to be with him (and for a more positive take on relationships and gender dynamics, viewers should try the far superior “Grease 2”), this is counterbalanced by other relationships with healthier dynamics. A particularly inspired casting change regarding the song “Beauty School Dropout” also adds some contemporary commentary to the frankly dated text.
Part of what gives TexArts’ production a greater emphasis on these other characters is the strength of the cast. While Lauren DeFilippo and Ryan Alvarado as Sandy and Danny are charming leads, they are bolstered by memorable performances of characters given very minor roles in the film (Jessica Askey’s Jan, Maddie Reese’s Marty, Jackson Pant’s Roger, and Connor Barr’s Doody are particular standouts). In addition, Amy Nichols as Miss Lynch brings a hilariously witty vivaciousness to the show’s one teacher.
Bouncy, rowdy, ebullient ensemble pieces are TexArts’ sweet spot, and “Grease” fits well within this range. Director Kasey RT Graham and choreographer Christopher Shin are adept at creating energetic stage pictures out of a crowded cast, and the focus is always on fun. Graham seems to recognize that the play version of “Grease” is as much a nostalgic review of ’50s-themed music as it is an absorbing narrative, and this carries through in all the performances.
TexArts excels at staging musicals that are, first and foremost, a rollicking good time for its audiences, and “Grease” is certainly no exception. Though certainly out of sync with contemporary gender dynamics in many ways, this production’s pure charm and whimsy win out in the end to create a fast-paced, toe-tapping rendition of a well-known musical.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through July 29
Where: TexArts, 2300 Lohman’s Spur, Suite 160