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Director returns to roots with Casa Mañana's 'Grease'

Grease

Through Sept. 23

Casa Mañana

3101 W. Lancaster Ave.,

Fort Worth

$41-$76

817-332-2272; www.casamanana.org


Posted 8:38am on Saturday, Sep. 15, 2012

Casa Mañana will be welcoming back a couple of old friends Saturday: Grease and Joel Ferrell.

The 1972 musical, which tunefully celebrates youthful rebellion in the late 1950s, is an old friend to every theater. Few shows light up the box office as reliably as this duck-billed chestnut. So it is no surprise to see it presented anywhere.

But Ferrell, the associate artistic director at Dallas Theater Center, is a bit less expected.

"You could have knocked me over with a feather," said Ferrell about receiving an e-mail from Casa president and executive producer Wally Jones asking him if he wanted to direct Grease.

It is a bit unusual for a theater to seek out a director who holds a regular position at a company in the same market. But Ferrell and Casa go way back.

"It was the first place I saw professional theater [at age 5]. It was where I got my Equity Card in 1981. It was the first place I directed for the main stage," said Ferrell, an Eastern Hills High grad who served as artistic director at Casa from 1996 through 2001. He has not been directly involved with a Casa production since.

"But to this day, people come up to me and ask me how things are going at Casa," said Ferrell, who is directing and choreographing this production of Grease. "So this feels like home. It is a lovely reunion."

Ferrell also will be reuniting with a musical he has not staged for 11 years, when he directed a Casa production of the show that was presented at Bass Hall. That run was a success, as are most presentations of this nostalgic musical, it seems.

Written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, Grease debuted on Broadway in 1972 and ran for more than eight years. Since that time, it has enjoyed two revivals on the Great White Way. Between the original and the revivals, the show has had more than 5,000 performances, making it one of the top 10 musicals of all time.

The 1978 film version, which starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, is also considered a classic. Most listings place it among the top 150 films of all time in terms of revenues, while some of those adjusted for inflation place it firmly in the top 50.

But the problem is that the original stage version, its two revivals and the film all have slightly different content. So, which Grease will we see at Casa?

"I think everybody who does Grease sculpts it a little bit differently. But we will be basically doing the original version," said Ferrell, although he added that this production will include You're the One That I Want, a song that was introduced in the film but which is now commonly part of the stage version.

"Sometimes the revivals make the mistake of trying to be bigger and flashier. But this will be much more pared down and focused. Because Grease is not a slick musical. There's a raw edge to it that says this needs to stay spontaneous and slightly imperfect."

And although choreography is one of Ferrell's fortes, he especially relishes working with the music of Grease, which will be performed by a five-piece band in this production.

"I think the heart of this show is the music. Every one of these numbers is a salute to a specific singer or a specific style of rock 'n' roll. Freddy, My Love is very much a girl-group number. Those Magic Changes is a guy-group number, for example."

Ferrell is aware, however, that those nuances of rock 'n' roll history may be lost on some of the younger members of his audience -- and his players.

"I have to laugh because my cast doesn't know most of the references," said the 53-year-old Ferrell.

One of those young players is New Yorker John Ashley Brown, who may not know the times of Grease, but he certainly knows the show. One of his first major professional gigs was playing Kenickie, the part he will be playing here, in the national touring production that included Frankie Avalon.

"I love the film. I used to watch it all the time as a kid. So I think that helped me," said Brown, 33, who was on that tour for 14 months in 2005-06. "But everybody can relate to this show. With every role, everybody in the crowd can say 'I was him' or 'I was her.' It's all about youth. You just have to recall what it was like when you were a kid."

Or, you can fall back on Ferrell's assessment of this musical that is so loved for its mindless joyfulness.

"I tell my cast, when in doubt, just remember that this show is about three things: sex, rock 'n' roll and fast cars."

So is it any wonder this musical is such an enduring hit?

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