'Grease' at River Campus a blend of versions of the classic musical

Friday, September 21, 2012
The cast of Grease sings "Summer Nights" with Danny, played by Michael Burrell, and Sandy, played by Stefanie Kluba, during a rehearsal by Southeast Missouri State University students at the Bedell Performance Hall. (Fred Lynch)

The Department of Theatre and Dance's presentation of the musical "Grease" at the River Campus' Bedell Performance Hall won't be the version high schools use.

When the original "Grease" opened in 1971 at the original Kingston Mines Theater in Chicago, it was considered raw, raunchy and vulgar. With social adjustments, it has become one of the most revived and best known musicals in history.

Set in the 1950s, it is a story of working-class teenagers as they flirt through the sometimes humorous, sometimes brutal, often life-changing decisions made in high school.

"This musical has smoking, teenage pregnancy, language, drinking, lots of sexual innuendo," said Kenneth Stilson, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Southeast Missouri State University. "We don't censor. We don't want people to come in and think it's been sanitized."

This production blends the 1971 original pre-Broadway production with the 1993 London revival and the 1978 movie.

"We are using the 1971 script, which is not the one the high schools use, with the 1993 orchestration and popular songs from the movie," Stilson said. "It mixes elements."

Doody, played by Zach McMahon, sings "Those Magic Changes" in a scene from the musical Grease during a rehearsal by Southeast Missouri State University students. (Fred Lynch)

Stilson asked Judith Farris, opera singer, vocal teacher and artist in residence, to perform as Teen Angel.

"When he first asked me, I said, 'No, I can't see it,'" Farris said. "It's typically a cameo done by a male such as Frankie Avalon [in the movie], Davy Jones, Taylor Hicks [in the Broadway productions]."

However, there have been women in the role.

"It's just such great fun because it's a cameo," Stilson said. "We'll have this opera diva descending from heaven, Aretha Franklin-like, complete with wings, lights and hoopla. She'll have her doo-wop girls and customers surrounding her with pink beehive hairdos."

Performing the best known roles will be Stefanie Kluba as Sandy, Michael Burrell as Danny, Jess Love as Betty Rizzo, Keith Johnson as Kenickie (or Miller depending on the script) and LeShay Mathis as Cha Cha DiGregorio. Mathis is also the assistant choreographer.

There will be 27 students on stage with 10 professional musicians from the Cape Girardeau and surrounding areas. Backstage, 40 students will supporting the cast and production. Another 150 have been helping in construction, building sets and making costumes.

The selection of what shows to perform begins well before the season starts. The faculty considers what will be good for the students, the current student population and their vocal abilities, and the audience, Cape Girardeau and the surrounding area.

"We try to be true to it," Farris said, referring to the scripts. "We have created a few waves from time to time."

"Art pushes boundaries, and mores of society," Stilson said. "We try to push the envelope."

Once they have considered the first two measures, they chose shows they want to do.

"The challenge for us is we don't do little musicals," Stilson said. "We always do big shows. This one is four weeks and six days after school started. We climb that mountain and dive in head first."

Over the summer information on preparation for auditions was sent to the theater and dance students. Fliers were placed around campus for non-theater students who want to try out. Auditions were held the second day of school. The students have given a lot of time and energy into daily rehearsal schedules. Over the Labor Day weekend they had five rehearsals, which equates to 15 hours of work.

"One of the biggest compliments," Farris said, "is many, actually most, of the audience will say they don't know the difference in a touring company and the students' productions."

When Stilson started in the department in 2001, there were 17 theater majors. The musical theater element was added when Farris came on board in 2004. Now there are 168 theater majors, and the school now offers a BFA in musical theater. The program has proved so popular they are outgrowing their current facilities.

"We are a professional training program," Stilson said. "We recruit as heavily as any athletic program. We recruit constantly and year-round."

The department is seeking national accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Theatre, which establishes national standards for undergraduate and graduate degrees and other credentials.

The accreditation is granted through a peer-review process. Currently there are two accredited school in Missouri and about 175 nationwide.

"It validates the quality of the program," Stilson said.

Representatives of the National Association of Schools of Theatre will be in town over the coming week to evaluate the production of "Grease."

"Next week will be very stressful, in a good way," Stilson said. "I have no fears about them evaluating classes and productions. People come from all over that can't believe what all we have going."

After the evaluations next week, the association will vote on accreditation.

"It's a testament to what has happened. It's no accident," Stilson said. "We're in this beautiful facility, which is actually the icing on the cake. But what our students are doing inside is what will get us accredited. It will take us to a whole new level."

The show will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 to 29 and at 2 p.m. Sept. 30. Tickets can be purchased at the River Campus box office or at rivercampusevents.com.

Pertinent address:

River Campus, Cape Girardeau MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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