The most telling moment in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's splendid re-imagining of Grease is a minor one, and - like most of this production's finest moments - nowhere to be found in the original script. (It's actually an invention of director/choreographer Ann Nieman's, designed to cover a scene change.) Danny (Jeremy Jonet) and Cha-Cha (Nicole Polzella) have just won Rydell High's dance competition, yet instead of relishing the victory, Danny runs off to re-claim the heart of his true love, Sandy (Cheryl Hoffman). As the decorations come down and the stragglers depart, Cha-Cha - who has even been rebuffed by the nerdy Eugene (Mark D. Lingenfelter) - finds herself alone, and she takes a beat, gazes at the suddenly meaningless trophy in her hands, and quietly, sadly walks off stage.

Up to this point, there have been hints, both understated and broad, that Circa '21's production won't quite be the Grease we're familiar with. Yet in that one sweetly touching throwaway sequence, you realize that this is a sharper, more carefully considered Grease than you've ever seen before, one filled with - honest to God - recognizable human beings. By the end of "Summer Nights" early in Act I, it's clear that the show is going to look and sound sensational, but you might not anticipate how much you'll eventually care about the people in it; nearly everything about Circa '21's production is a surprise, and nearly all of its surprises are fantastic ones.

You wouldn't think much could be done to redeem this show. Grease's book, with its borderline repellent messages - "Conform or else!" - is a shambles, and the music, catchy though it's become through endless repetition, is really nothing special. Yet the astonishment of Circa '21's presentation is that, somehow, Nieman and her tremendously gifted ensemble have found the heart of Grease, and I didn't think this show even had a heart.

When I first heard that Cheryl Hoffman was playing Sandy, though, I was overjoyed, because Hoffman has proven such a clever, dexterous comedienne in past shows; here was an actress who could - as is necessary for the role - play good-girl-gone-bad and parody good-girl-gone-bad simultaneously. But Hoffman does something far more subversive here - she plays the role honestly. For large stretches, her Sandy is so mousy that she threatens to vanish, and Hoffman delivers Sandy's line "I don't know why I ever liked you, Danny Zuko" so simply and truthfully that the heartbreak is shattering; Sandy's evolution from goody-goody to slut is generally the least convincing element in any production of Grease, yet thanks to Hoffman's game, even moving performance, you're aching to see Sandy embrace her bad side. (The actress has also prepared us for this transformation by peppering Sandy with bursts of comic hostility - she's still a bit of a wallflower, but this is a meaner Sandy than you're accustomed to.) Hoffman has pulled off the unthinkable in Grease - she's created a Sandy with depth.

At the start, Jeremy Jonet seems to be on to something similar. When Danny first sees Sandy again after their summer fling, he becomes flustered and Jonet, cleverly, raises his voice by nearly an octave as Danny's feelings spill out; you sense that the character's tough-guy persona is a front that camouflages Danny's inner nerd. But Danny's subsequent scenes with Sandy don't continue in that vein, and the romantic greaser quickly becomes a generic song-and-dance hood. This is partly the fault of the show's book - Danny is a horribly written role, as his flip-flops in character make him seem schizophrenic - but, unlike his co-star, Jonet can't find much emotional truth in Danny, so he sticks with the expected bad-ass posturing.

Generally, the more artificial the performances are here, the less they resonate. You can also feel this in the work of Kim Furness and Chris Boerner, both of whom are terrifically talented and occasionally get the chance to show it - Furness in her soulful rendition of Rizzo's "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" ballad, Boerner with his physically zesty take on Kenickie's "Greased Lightning." Yet the emphasis the actors give their accents makes us too aware of them - can Tough Guy be considered a dialect? - and their portrayals feel a little forced; we begin to view the performances as performances. Jonet, Furness, and Boerner are playing "cool" and are often quite good at it, yet they don't seem relaxed just yet, and one of the wonderful surprises of this Grease is how the show's geeks - triumphantly - wind up outcooling the cool kids.

This is the first Grease I've seen that succeeds as an ensemble piece; the affinity Nieman has for the show's second bananas makes these losers look like winners, and her cast delivers uniquely inspired performances. Bret Churchill's nerdy Doody sets the tone for the whole show when he launches into a stunning rendition of "Those Magic Changes," and his duet with Patrick Walters' Roger on "Rock 'n' Roll Party Queen" is similarly marvelous - both Churchill and Walters are musically gifted and supremely funny, to boot. Walters and Amanda Bonner form an adorable pair of moonstruck lovers - Bonner is a slapstick sweetheart - while Michael Kackurak excels as a lovable, cowering lunkhead. Lingenfelter is a nebbishy riot, and Kate Riley, as the uber-peppy Patty Simcox, is so hilarious that she effortlessly turns a relatively minor figure into a major role.

Nearly actor for actor, it's hard to imagine the show being better cast. Erin Churchill (nee Dickerson) is a pert, feisty comedienne, Sara Weibel a vibrant, electric presence, and Tom Walljasper and Adam Michael Lewis employ some riotous vocal tricks as the appropriately, hysterically seedy radio DJs. As Miss Lynch, the token angry adult, Andrea Moore is a derisive dry comic, and Polzella's Cha-Cha is terrifically enjoyable, danced with enormous skill and striking a nearly flawless balance between "real" and "cartoon" - it's a brief performance, but a dynamite one.

There are elements of the show about which you could gripe; in an effort, I'm sure, to keep the production family-friendly, the salty language has been homogenized almost beyond belief, which seems odd considering Grease's often-adult-themed material. When did the word "crap" become more likely to provoke than a teenage-pregnancy subplot?

But the show is technically assured, with spectacular work by lighting designer Russell A. Thompson and the ever-inventive costume designer Gregory Hiatt, and Nieman's choreography is altogether remarkable; "Summer Nights" and "Hand Jive" are particularly hot, and the dance duet between Jonet and Pozella is so dynamic that, on opening night, it elicited applause long before it ended.

Nieman's work as both choreographer and director is wonderful, yet she deserves special accolades for the way she subtly tweaks the morals of the show; what used to be "Conform or else!" is now "We're all kind of the same - we're all tough guys and geeks - so just be who you are." Who would have thought - a production of Grease with a positive message for its youthful fans? (If your kids haven't yet experienced Grease but you know they will one day, take them to this production; it might change - for the better, I think - their perception of the show.) Before last Friday night, Grease was, perhaps, the one musical I disliked above all others. In its current Circa '21 incarnation, it's a show I'd be more than happy to see again.

I can't believe it.

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