Vibrant cast highlights 'Grease' in Bradenton

Manatee Players stage an energetic version of the classic musical

mclear@bradenton.comSeptember 14, 2013 

It's a '70s musical set in the '50s, but "Grease" still seems bright and fresh.

Lots of fun songs, characters who seem like old friends, and a slight but enjoyable story line with its nostalgic look at '50s stereotypes keep "Grease" appealing more than four decades after it first hit the stage.

An exuberant and charismatic cast with terrific voices, graceful athleticism and some decent acting chops makes the new production from Manatee Players a crowd-pleasing success.

The opening night of the production had to clear a couple high hurdles to succeed.

The first was its predecessor. Manatee Players opened their season with a production of "Les Miserables" that stunned audiences with its depth, its performances and its stagecraft. It's of course unfair to expect any production, let alone one as intentionally light as "Grease," to be as exalted. But for anyone who saw "Les Miz," it was difficult to banish unreasonably high expectations.

Director Jared E. Walker and his cast of young, vibrant performers quickly got the audience on their side with joyful singing and dancing.

The second hurdle was even harder to overcome. On opening night, sound problems sapped the energy from the show, from start to finish.

The body microphones gave voices an artificial tone that was a distraction. But a more serious problem was inconsistent volume. At times lines of dialogue were difficult or impossible to hear. In two-person scenes, one actor was often much louder than the other. In musical numbers, the background singers were sometimes hard to hear, and that drained the vigor from such songs as "Summer Nights." The on-stage five-piece band (guitar, drums, woodwinds and two keyboard) played well, but sounded thin because of the sound quality.

Problems like that often get solved or least ameliorated as a show's run progresses. But the creative work was strong enough that most people in the opening-night audience weren't especially bothered by technical shortfalls.

Bryce Frase and Emma Slotabec seem born to play the quasi-tough guy Danny and the oh-so-innocent Sandy, who fall in love just before the play's action opens. Frase has the requisite swagger, Slotabec the perfect fresh-faced charm, and both have great voices and enough acting ability to make us care about them.

Meredith Garofalo creates the show's emotional highlight as Rizzo with a lovely delivery of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," and Ashley Cronkhite (Jan), William Hellem (Kenicke) and Steven Drake (Doody) are among the standouts as pseudo-gang members.

There's truly not a bad or even mediocre performance in the large cast, and some of the ensemble dancing is terrific.

Director Walker said he wanted to feature a more realistic look at the '50s with this production. That doesn't come across, but that's not necessarily bad.

This is pretty typical "Grease," which means it's the kind of lighthearted fluff, the same kind of sanitized look at the era, that still delights audiences after 42 years.

Details: Through Sept. 29, Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third St. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $26-$36. Information: 941-748-5875, www.manateeplayers.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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