Grease at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia

TheatreBloom rating:

I got chills! They’re multiplying! And I’m telling you to go— ‘cause the show that they’re supplying— it’s electrifying! Why, it’s more than electrifying, it’s Grease lightning! You’re gonna need to meditate in Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia’s direction for some real summer lovin’ this 2019 summer season because Grease is the word and Toby’s production is the one that you want. Directed and Choreographed by Mark Minnick with Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings, this summer stunner was born to hand-jive, baby! It’ll have you bouncing along in your seats from start to finish and guaranteed, hands-down, you’ll have a blast.

The cast of Grease at Toby's Dinner Theatre. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom The cast of Grease at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.

A deceptively simple set is harbinger to the 1950’s; Resident Set Designer David A. Hopkins’ tasteful smattering of posters around the theatre’s walls are the beacon of pop culture for the times. Strategically placed among the posters are backlit signs that aid in the show’s transition from location to location; the Burger Palace has square red signage, the House of Waxx radio studio has neon glow lights reading WAXX in all four corners. Working in tandem with Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin, Hopkins really lights up all the locations inside the iconic Rydell High School. The most impressive combined feat the pair presents is the light-up staircase, which changes colors and blink-speed patterns depending upon the tempo and mood of the musical number in which it is featured. Joslin does a fine job of peppering the production with liberal splashes of color, mostly when big dance numbers are shaking, rattling, and rolling around the stage.

The Greasers, The Pink Ladies, the school nerds, even the main brain Vince Fontaine look flashy and fit for a 50’s musical thanks to the sartorial selections of Costume Designer Janine Sunday. The dresses alone featured at the top of the second act for the High School Hop and various other dance numbers are real crowd pleasers and eyeball teasers. Sunday’s attention to little details— like Eugene’s ruffles on the front of his dress blouse or the opposing complimentary neck scarves that Rizzo alternates whenever she changes her outfit— are what put take the production’s aesthetics to the next level of professionalism.

Paul Roeckell (center) as Kenickie and the Greasers at Toby's Dinner Theatre. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Paul Roeckell (center) as Kenickie and the Greasers at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

With a balanced pit that drives a demanding and engaging pace to the show’s musical numbers, Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings really puts his years of seasoned experience on display with Grease. Finding that superb balance between the allegro dance numbers and the more subdued solo features, Rawlings blends the show together into one musical milkshake, perfect for enjoying. Sound Designer Mark Smedley deserves a nod for his “Greased Lightning” sound effect, complimented with some corny cues from Lynn Joslin’s light board.

Audiences everywhere know Grease, be it musical or movie, and Director Mark Minnick has honed his craft once more at presenting a sensational cast, bursting to the brim with enthusiasm and talent; audiences everywhere will not be disappointed with this production. With a youthful infusion of new faces, Minnick’s cast looks and feels like the kids of Rydell High. Strong character choices and a laser-focus on little moments carefully crafted into the non-musical moments are the glue that gels one musical number from the next, giving Grease a real sense of heart in its storyline. The pacing is, as has come to be expected in Minnick’s productions, extremely sharp and well-developed.

Matt Hirsh (left) as Danny and Maggie Dransfield (right) as Rizzo and the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Matt Hirsh (left) as Danny and Maggie Dransfield (right) as Rizzo and the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.

You’ll find it difficult not to leap out of your seat and dance along once the cast gets going with Mark Minnick’s choreography. Big dance finales— like “You’re The One That I Want”, “We Go Together (Reprise)”, and “Born to Hand-Jive (Reprise)”— provide the most outrageously jovial exodus to a stupendous production; Minnick’s infectious glee informs all of these wildly engaging numbers, which really drives home the “feel-good, summer-lovin’” sentiment of Grease. Minnick’s choreography is truly one of a kind— like the show implies— it’s electrifying! Not only is it engaging, but Minnick’s seasoned experience on Toby’s in-the-round space gives the audience a balanced feel. All the dance numbers are rotating around so everyone gets to see all of them all throughout each of the numbers and no one side of the house is blocked more heavily than another. “Shakin’ at the High School Hop” and “Born to Hand-Jive” are two main examples of how there is structured chaos and authentic fun occurring on stage. The choreography of the show drives the musical tempo and vice-versa in this beautiful ebb and flo of music and dance, all done at warp speed with unfathomably high levels of energy. “Born to Hand-Jive” in specific features so many intensely impressive moves, it’s almost like the dance exists of its own accord and masterfully puppets the performers through it. “Greased Lightnin’” is a second close favorite for all of the wild pelvic-popping moves featured therein.

Leading the team through Minnick’s phenomenal choreography, Dance Captain Rachel Kemp really gets to showcase her fancy footwork as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, who shows up in a wig that’s as tall as her skirt is poofy. Kemp’s routines during “Born to Hand-Jive” are wild and really give her star cameo status for that number. When not ruffling her skirt as Cha-Cha, Kemp leads the rest of the dancing ensemble (Brandon Bedore, MaryKate Brouillet, Kourtney Richards, AJ Whittenberger) and the other featured characters through countless bouts of high-octane movement, never once showcasing even an ounce of fatigue or lackluster energy.

Allie O'Donnell (left) as Frenchy and Crystal Freeman (right) as Teen Angel in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photoraphy
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Allie O’Donnell (left) as Frenchy and Crystal Freeman (right) as Teen Angel in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photoraphy

The fusty Miss Lynch, played by the incomparable Crystal Freeman, gets to let her hair down in the show’s reprisal-finale sequence, where Freeman gets to showcase her glorious voice for a secondary time in the evening. Freeman, who doubles up as Teen Angel, puts a glorious, soulful belt into “Beauty School Dropout”, earning her a well-deserved screaming ovation from the audience at the number’s conclusion. Freeman just drifts through the number, physically floating around in a glamour gown that can only be described as heavenly, accompanied by various ladies in the cast, bedecked in golden gospel choir robes as they sing backup to Freeman’s featured solo.

Jeffrey Shankle as Vince Fontaine. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Jeffrey Shankle as Vince Fontaine. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Watch out for the main brain, Vince Fontaine (Jeffrey Shankle) as he pops in and out of the “House of Waxx” above the audiences’ heads for the first half of the production. Situated on one of Toby’s signature elevate platforms, Shankle’s character pops in and out during the first act and appears on the floor to host the High School Sock Hop. Playing a cheeky and a tiny bit shady of a rather forward character, Shankle leads the youngsters through the series of songs that take place inside the boy’s gymnasium at Rydell High. Like Freeman, Shankle gets to really put his vocal prowess to work during the “Born to Hand-Jive (Reprise)” finale segment of the show, livening up that last hoorah before the show’s conclusion.

DeCarlo Raspberry as Johnny Casino. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom DeCarlo Raspberry as Johnny Casino. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Sharing the floor of the sock hop with Vince Fontaine, DeCarlo Raspberry is none other than Johnny Casino, with personality for miles pumping out of his booming vocals and funky fresh dance moves. “Shakin’ at the High School Hop” and “Born to Hand-Jive” become Raspberry’s signature numbers in this production and he shakes it all over the dance floor while engaging both the kids of Rydell and the audience in the wily enthusiasm that these numbers have to offer. Blitzed out in shimmer-gold threads, Raspberry has the look, the sound, and the moves to really keep the kids and the audience shaking all night long on the dance floor.

Rachel Kemp (left) as ChaCha DiGregorio and Shiloh Orr (right) as Eugene. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Rachel Kemp (left) as ChaCha DiGregorio and Shiloh Orr (right) as Eugene. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Dorky, whiny, and downright nerdy, Patty Simcox (Louisa Tringali) and Eugene Florczyk (Shiloh Orr) are the epitome of high school do-gooders. While the script demands that the Patty Simcox character get a bit more stage time, Orr’s Eugene doesn’t get swept away under some science-club rug. In addition to having the nerd physicality and gait mastered, Orr brings out a vocal affectation that is par for the course when it comes to the poindexter character. (And see if you can’t catch him cartwheeling alongside AJ Whittenberger in “Greased Lightnin’” as greasers who move!) Tringali, as the nasally and equally obnoxious Cheer Captain also brings forth fond stereotypes of the “preppy teacher’s pet” type that is Patty Simcox. The pair add balance to all of these cool cats and chill chicks that seem to rampantly populate Rydell High.  

The Burger Boys— Sonny LaTierri (Joey Ellinghaus), Doody (Taylor Witt), Roger (Justin Calhoun), and Kenickie (Paul Roeckell)— are thunderous incarnations of the Greasers of the 50’s. Their mannerisms, speech patois and cadence, as well as their overall attitudes and interactions with one another really bring that goofy but gruff high school brotherhood together in this production of Grease. Joey Ellinghaus is hilarious whenever he’s trying to be a tough guy whilst simultaneously not getting into trouble with Miss Lynch. He’s got the body language of a true Greaser, and really fits the bill when it comes to getting involved with their mega number, “Greased Lightnin’.”

Kalen Robinson (left) as Jan and Justin Calhoun (right) as Roger in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Kalen Robinson (left) as Jan and Justin Calhoun (right) as Roger in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Taylor Witt and Justin Calhoun, Doody and Rodger respectively, are great when they’re goofing off on the guitar, singing together for “Rock ‘N’ Roll Party Queen.” Both have priceless flirtations with their respective Pink Ladies Gal (Frenchy and Jan) and make them out to be hilarious awkward moments as they tease their way through trying to figure out high school romance. Witt’s solo “Those Magic Changes” is a gem that sets the tone for slower numbers like it throughout the production while Calhoun really gets to show off his vocal prowess and his range, tempered with silly lyrics and great vocal duet support from the spry and eager Jan (Kalen Robinson) during his solo “Mooning.”

And then of course there’s Kenickie (Paul Roeckell) who has the temperament of a revved up car rearing to go. Roeckell leads the boys through “Greased Lightnin’”, which features the iconic drivable— automatic, systematic, hydromatic— car that peels all over the stage. Roeckell has the real gritty exterior of Kenickie well in hand, but when that pivotal moment comes right before Rizzo’s big number, there is an astonishing emotional depth that comes to the forefront of his portrayal for the briefest of seconds and it really resonates strongly.

Maggie Dransfield as Rizzo in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Maggie Dransfield as Rizzo in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Difficult to talk about Kenickie without singing the praises of the Pink Ladies ring leader Betty Rizzo (Maggie Dransfield.) Sassy, crass, and full of bite, Dransfield channels her own unique version of a high school mean-girl-queen-B right into the character, sliding into the 50’s nature of Rizzo like a second skin. The animated facial expressions, the exacting zingers that she delivers with comedic precision, and of course her strong, enigmatic vocals really round out Dransfield’s performance.  There is a striking beauty to her solo feature “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” as she drives that message home with a plethora of explosive emotions, all of which are delivered directly at Sandy, but clearly intended for so many others.

The rest of the Pink Ladies— Marty (Nia Savoy), Jan (Kalen Robinson), and Frenchy (Allie O’Donnell)— bring their own little quirks to the performance. Savoy, who has her own brand of sassy to put forward, nails her solo feature “Freddy My Love” with panache, constantly snarling at Rizzo in a challenging manner with a deep-seeded desire to be the Pinky Lady’s queen bee. Robinson, as the adorable Jan, is precious and well-matched against Justin Calhoun, which makes their awkward romantic chemistry absolutely priceless. Allie O’Donnell’s Frenchy has vocal similarities to the iconic movie rendition of the character, but with a much better fashion sense. As a group, these gals, plus Rizzo, provide an impressive amount of supporting vocals and dance moves all throughout the performance.

Nicki Elledge (left) as Sandy and Matt Hirsh (right) as Danny in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Nicki Elledge (left) as Sandy and Matt Hirsh (right) as Danny in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Summer Lovin’— they’re having a blast that Danny Zuko (Matt Hirsh) and Sandy Dumbrowski (Nicki Elledge.) Both characters have huge looming shadows cast by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John hovering over them, but Hirsh and Elledge do their own groovy thing and create believable characters that you really start to enjoy and care for when it comes to Sandy and Danny. Elledge masters the art of being the show’s gooey-eyed ingénue; she’s a sheltered doll with a sweet disposition, delicate voice, and serious emotions for a bad-boy. When she bounces through her half of “Summer Nights”— a scene which is blocked exceptionally well via the use of freeze-frame and focus lighting— there is just a lighthearted hopefulness in both her body and her voice. “Hopefully Devoted to You” and “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Reprise)” are her emotional and vocal heavy-lifting of the show, showing up in the second act. Elledge brings raw heart and true spirit to both of these numbers.

Nicki Elledge (left) as Sandy and Matt Hirsh (right) as Danny in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Nicki Elledge (left) as Sandy and Matt Hirsh (right) as Danny in Grease. Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

With the perfectly greased hair and the bulky body look, Matt Hirsh is Danny Zuko locked and ready to rumble. Not at all falling into the trappings of emulating John Travolta, but with just enough homage to the character so that those who are looking for John Travolta will still feel satisfied, Hirsh invents his own fantastical incarnation of Danny. There is a kinder, gentler, honest individual inside of this Danny Zuko that shows in moments with Sandy but also carefully concealed elsewhere. Hirsh’s powerhouse numbers include “Alone at the Drive-In Movie” where he belts his way through those Frankie-Valley-style high notes. Watching the Zuko transformation, alongside the Sandy Dumbrowski transformation, is about as rewarding as it gets when Grease comes to its conclusion.

It’s time to meditate in Toby’s direction— and feel the electrifying awesomeness that is Grease this summer! Book fast because tickets are going faster than greased lightnin’!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

Grease plays through July 28, 2019 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (410) 730-8311 or purchase them online


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