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‘Grease’ slips onto UNLV stage

It’s the one that you want. But it might not be the one that you know.

That’s because the identity of “Grease” — the rockin’ musical that began a 10-performance run at UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theatre Thursday — is almost as slippery as the substance that inspires its title.

If you’re talking stage versions, there’s the raunchy original, which debuted in 1971 in a converted Chicago trolley barn.

From there, “Grease” moved to Broadway in 1972, then spawned a smash 1978 movie adaptation (and less successful sequel), plus two more Great White Way revivals — and countless productions around the world.

Including the current Nevada Conservatory Theatre production at UNLV, which incorporates aspects of both stage and screen versions, according to director Tim Bennett, who directed NCT’s musical satire “Urinetown” last year.

“There are definitely some significant differences between the two,” says Bennett, who notes that he and his collaborators “had never done the show before,” and therefore approached it as “a new musical.”

Determining which elements would work best, “we pulled pieces from both,” Bennett explains. “It’s primarily the stage version, but there were elements of the movie that we felt more strongly conveyed” the points they wanted to make. “It’s a combination of the two.”

So, if you’ve only seen the movie version of “Grease,” you may not recognize such stage-only numbers as “Shakin’ at the High School Hop.”

But you’ll definitely recognize the denizens of Rydell High, whose antics and angsts inspire “Grease’s” high-spirited hijinks.

Chief among them: Danny Zuko (played by Darek Riley), whose summer romance with the wholesome Sandy (Niki Scalera) hits the skids once class is back in session — and Danny discovers that his squeaky-clean squeeze, the new girl in school, doesn’t do much for his cool-guy reputation as leader of the pack.

In the Broadway original, that pack was known collectively as the Burger Palace Boys, but they became the T-Birds in the movie version, just as Sandy’s surname metamorphosed from Dumbrowski to Olsson in the transition from stage to screen. (And Sandy became Australian to suit the performer portraying her: Olivia Newton-John.)

But the girls Sandy hangs out with always have been the Pink Ladies, from tough-chick ringleader Rizzo (Marissa McCoy) to fun-loving Frenchy (Madison Kisst), whose status as a “Beauty School Dropout” prompts some musical advice from none other than the Teen Angel of her dreams. (Brandon Burk and Bruce Ewing share the Teen Angel role, along with another part: greasy DJ Vince Fontaine.)

Among the screen elements audiences will hear in the NCT production: such movie hits as “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” But those big-screen numbers turn up alongside their stage counterparts, “It’s Raining on Prom Night” and “All Choked Up,” respectively.

And if you’re a fan of “Sandy” (which John Travolta’s Danny sang on-screen), prepare to be disappointed, because this “Grease” uses the stage equivalent, “Alone at a Drive-In Movie.” That’s because Bennett and his colleagues thought the “typical ’50s heartbreak ballad” would be “more applicable” to “what’s happening with Danny, the director explains.

Regardless of origin, however, the musical — written by Jim Jacobs and the late Warren Casey, who based their show on their own Chicago teen years — serves up a winning combination of song and dance, in Bennett’s view.

“The music is hummable, playful, fun and recognizable,” he says. “There’s a lot of humor and a lot of dance — particularly in our production.”

In NCT’s “Grease,” Bennett shares choreography credit with associate director Andrea Avruskin and “we’ve really expanded some of the numbers,” he notes.

In addition to new dance arrangements by musical director Chris Lash, this “Grease” features “more expressive, more abstract” choreography, going beyond “the dance of the period,” according to Bennett.

To heighten the choreography’s impact, the show features “a more skilled dance cast” capable of putting movement at the forefront, he adds.

“To me, the show’s dances are part of the storytelling,” Bennett says. (And fans of the movie should watch for some dance-tastic “Easter eggs,” some “choreographic references that will make people laugh, because they’re so familiar with the movie.”)

NCT’s “Grease” also spotlights a “really great mix” of performers, he points out, from community and student actors to such Strip (and Broadway) veterans as Scalera (“We Will Rock You”) and Ewing (“Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular” and “Forever Plaid”).

And while Bennett notes “it is a fun show — we do want people to come and have a good time,” the perennially popular musical also has “a very strong message,” the director maintains.

After all, “it was originally written as a love letter to the ’50s,” not a parody, and recalled a time when “teenagers were first coming into their own,” he says, when “teen rebellion and teen angst signaled” that, for the first time, the kids “had their own identity and their own money.”

Beyond that, “Grease” explores the notion that “you really become a complete person and succeed when you step” beyond others’ “expectations” of (and for) you, the director says. “There’s a lot to be gained by stepping outside of yourself, and being yourself,” as opposed to the person “other people see.”

Most of all, however, the creative team involved with this particular version of “Grease” hopes audiences will realize whatever changes have been made are “to solidify the story,” Bennett explains.

Or, better yet, that “if things are not in our production” that were in the movie, audiences “aren’t going to notice it, because they’re too involved in the story.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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