Choreographer toughens up ‘Grease’
Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp is hosting a 1959 Rydell High School class reunion in the Julie Harris Theatre this weekend. Steamboat Springs audiences are invited to join Sandy, Danny, Rizzo, Frenchi and the rest of the Pink Ladies and T Birds for their trip down memory lane in the musical production of “Grease.”
This isn’t the sticky sweet movie version, director Burgess Clark said as he looked over the camp’s rustic theater that was being converted into a 1950s diner, complete with checkerboard floors and swinging kitchen doors. This is the Broadway version of “Grease,” with more musical numbers, less focus on the couple and more of the raunch that writers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey intended for their play, Clark said.
As fate would have it for the oldest performing arts camp in the nation, the Tony-nominated choreographer for the original Broadway versions of “Grease” happens to be 1950s Perry-Mansfield alumna Patricia Birch.
Birch sat in during five days of “Grease” rehearsals this month, sharing some signature dance pieces and setting the original Broadway choreography for “Shakin’ at the High School Hop” on the students. Birch’s choreography is complemented by the work of Perry-Mansfield dance instructor Bryan Steele to round out the large, ensemble production.
“What I’m trying to do is toughen it up,” Birch said during her visit. She said most of the “Grease” revivals forget where the story came from — a tale about a real high school in East Chicago with very tough characters. When Birch originally choreographed the show, she said it was like doing documentary research on “greasers,” gleaned from hours of watching Dick Clark and scouring the thrift shops in New York for costumes. She fondly remembered how “Grease” initially was done with corded microphones to keep “the guts of rock ‘n’ roll.” When the play opened in 1972, she said, it was still early for rock ‘n’ roll on Broadway.
“I think it needs to be done honestly,” Birch said.
There is no doubt among the “Grease” cast that Birch was an imposing figure for them to work with, with several of the seasoned cast members admitting how nervous they were to dance for the renowned veteran.
Clark said Birch spent a lot more time with the “Grease” cast than she initially planned, especially because her career has had many enticing experiences to share with the aspiring performers at Perry-Mansfield. The five-time Tony nominated choreographer’s resume includes being a lead dancer with the Martha Graham Company, a prolific director and choreographer on and off Broadway, an opera choreographer, film choreographer, six years staging numbers for “Saturday Night Live,” and directing music videos for the likes of Carly Simon and the Rolling Stones.
“She got the spark again,” Clark said reminiscing about Birch’s energy at his “Grease” rehearsals. He said she was “all business, but ultimately very kind” with the students, despite her initial grumbling that she was done with “Grease” after 30 years of it “hanging over her head.”
There are some critical differences between “Grease” as the play that was written for experimental theater in 1971 and the 1978 movie rendition of the story. The original “Grease” takes place in Chicago, not near the beach. Sandy is not from Australia. And the characters are a lot tougher than Hollywood made them out to be, Clark pointed out.
“Grease is about the senior year we all wished we had — the romanticized version,” Clark said. “Think of the play version as PG-13.”
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