It says something about director Michael Brindisi’s exuberant revival of “Grease” at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres that a relatively small scene such as “Beauty School Dropout” becomes a showstopper.
It helps that it’s performed by Kasano Mwanza, who appears in the audience as a white-clad, Jackie Wilson-esque Teen Angel, with big hair and a gorgeous voice. Teen Angel has come to tell Frenchy (Shinah Brashears), who couldn’t handle high school, about herself. Mwanza sings the message with sweetness and empathy, joining Frenchy onstage to console the poor thing, who, with her frizzy hair and deer-in-the-headlights look, drinks up the attention like a thirsty puppy.
“Beauty School Dropout” is emblematic of Brindisi’s approach to this show, which was a big winner for his company in 2006, setting a box-office record and launching Laura Osnes on the path to national fame. With a light touch, he employs humor and heart to deliver a story that, while dated, remains transgressive.
Frankly, the message in “Grease” is not one that many parents would teach their kids today: If you want to get accepted into the in-group, just change the way you look and act — like Sandy (Caroline Innerbichler), the virginal girl who goes from reserved square to hot mama faster than you can say “You’re the One That I Want.”
But Brindisi’s revival, which really is about kids at their own crossroads, makes succumbing to peer pressure so much fun.
The story is set in 1959 at Rydell High. Pretty boy Danny Zuko (Aleks Knezevich) and his gang square off, hormonally, against the Pink Ladies led by Rizzo (Ruthanne Heyward). Preoccupied with sex and style, both groups do a lot of fronting around their friends, but one on one, they show their true, confused feelings.
Danny certainly deals with Sandy that way, showing her his heart in private but then treating her coldly in public.
Brindisi has tapped a good-looking, energetic cast for this “Grease,” which combines songs from both the original stage musical and the film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Knezevich has charisma to spare, and makes the role his own, even as his visage and dance moves suggest Travolta. He has a strong match in Innerbichler, who is sweet and innocent at the outset and hard-charging and sexy by the end. Other standouts include Heyward, whose tough-cookie Rizzo vies to be a headliner; Ben Bakken, butter-smooth as Danny’s pal Kenickie, and Keith Rice, deliciously icky as dirty old man Vince Fontaine.
The production has an efficient design — Nayna Ramey’s set has a lot of intersections and a functioning traffic light — some lovely choreography by Tamara Kangas Erickson and eye-popping wigs by Paul Bigot.