'Grease' remains fresh 'The Village Child' is whimsical

June 25, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Baltimoreans produced the original New York production of "Grease," so it seems especially appropriate that 20 years later Towson State University's Maryland Arts Festival is giving local audiences a chance to have a reunion with this show -- which happens to be about a reunion.

Though the musical is little more than a flash from the '50s, the current production makes it seems fresher than a cheerleader's smile. Director and choreographer Todd Pearthree's staging leaves you be-bopping, doo-wopping and feeling just about every other silly '50s emotion you can remember -- except boredom.

One of the neatest, keenest examples is the scene in which henna-haired Frenchy (Katie Brader) drops out of beauty school and calls on her guardian angel for guidance. A trapdoor opens and, surrounded by heavenly clouds of smoke, Frenchy's "Teen Angel" (smooth crooning Mark Blackburn) emerges, accompanied by a chorus of beauty parlor customers whose cosmetic capes look remarkably like angel wings whenever they lift their arms in Pearthree's sleekly synchronized gestures.

The scene is typical of the wit characterizing Pearthree's direction and Georgia O'Daniel Baker's costumes, which manage to be funny without resorting to parody.

The plot of "Grease" -- by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, who also wrote the score -- concerns the transformation of a new girl in school from goody-two-shoes to whatever you call the female version of a greaser. Although her voice can be a bit shrill, Michelle L. Merson has the right Barbie doll presence. Andrew Karl Cesewski is similarly well-suited to the role of her greaser boyfriend, and his falsetto reaches skyscraper heights. As Rizzo, the toughest girl greaser of them all, Shannon Wollman is vocally as smooth as Blackburn's Teen Angel, but her singing style has more of a 1990s nightclub quality than 1950s rock 'n' roll.

Incidentally, the reunion flashback device at the beginning of "Grease" is the weakest part of the show. But in this case, it serves as a reminder of the difference between this production and real high school reunions. The latter often bring up as many unpleasant memories as pleasant ones; with Pearthree and company in charge, there's no chance of that here.

Down the hall from "Grease," the Maryland Arts Festival goes from the delightfully ridiculous to the delightfully sublime with Sandglass Theater of Vermont's wonderfully whimsical puppetry work-in-progress, "The Village Child."

Co-sponsored by the Theatre Project, which presented Sandglass' "Invitations to Heaven" last year, this new work continues the theme of accepting and learning from the past.

The piece is performed by Ines Zeller Bass, who operates most of the puppets, and her husband, Eric Bass, who performs live. His character is that of an inventor-cum-vaudevillian, whose "act" consists of demonstrations of his experiments on the nature of flight. He studies the body, the mind -- represented by a philosopher puppet with a balloon that pops out of his head and inflates when he gets an idea -- the spirit, art and nature as sources of flight. But he actively resists the clue that arrives unexpectedly in his workshop in the form of a strange child whose actions summon up a forgotten past.

"The Village Child," subtitled, "Something Like a Fairy Tale," reaches beyond the evocative quality of "Invitations to Heaven," exhibiting moments that seem like pure magic. Sandglass Theater may not have discovered the secret of flight, but it has definitely discovered the secret of art.

"Grease" continues through July 4 and "The Village Child" continues through June 28 in the Fine Arts Center at Towson State University. Call (410) 830-2787.

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