I love TV's The Office for many reasons, but the most basic is that nowhere else on television will you find a weekly ensemble of 16 performers, each of whom is consistently in character, and each of whom is consistently funny. No matter where your eye lands in a group scene, you find yourself grinning - if not laughing out loud - at some priceless reading or reaction, and that's what routinely occurs throughout the Timber Lake Playhouse's current, knockout presentation of Grease, a production that, coincidentally, also boasts an ensemble of 16 stellar comedians. (Seventeen, if you count the hysterical, wordless, run-on cameo by Jake Bollman.) And Timber Lake's troupe even tops the sitcom's office drones in one regard, because damn, but this staff can sing.
For an example of just how hugely entertaining director James Beaudry's musical is, allow me to describe its high-school dance sequence. (I'm presuming we can skip the show's plot and character synopses. If you find yourself needing a Grease primer, simply consult any random passerby on the street.) Johnny Casino & the Gamblers have taken the stage, Rydell High School's Pink Ladies, Burger Palace Boys, and other students are roaming the gymnasium, and if you let your focus wander, what follows is a sampling of what you'll witness in roughly 60 seconds of stage time.
Danny Zuko (Thomas Stewart) maintaining a cool façade while obviously heartsick over the absence of sweetheart Sandy (Kaci Scott). Rizzo (Jessica Dyer) and Kenickie (Carl Hendin) ecstatic at being the hottest couple in sight. Beautician wannabe Frenchy (Eli Pauley) consoling Doody (Adam Fane), who's hoping that no one else noticed his klutzy dance-floor tumble. The beaming Jan (Sainty Reid), resplendently happy at landing Roger (David Herr) as her date. Roger fastening his belt buckle, having just mooned an off-stage victim. Smarmy DJ Vince Fontaine (Justin Verstraete) making out with high-school vixen Marty (Jamie Finkenthal). Sonny (Kyle Szen) aghast at the feral dance moves of Cha-Cha DiGregorio (Vanessa Panerosa). Peppy Patty Simcox (Meredith Jones) miserable at her dissing by Danny. Nerdy Eugene (Phillip Newman) absconding with Rizzo's flask of booze. The tyrannical Miss Lynch (Amanda Hendricks) peevishly loathing the kids' incivility. And crooner Johnny Casino (Rod Lawrence) taking it all in with an expression that reads, "These high-school gigs suck."
At no time does Beaudry specifically direct your attention to any of these happenings (although Cha-Cha's volatile writhing is certainly tough to miss); they're there for you to catch, or not, and the fluid generousness of this sequence - with Beaudry gently insisting that each character is the star of his or her own story - is representative of this Grease as a whole. Staged by the director and Panerosa, the choreography has a kicky ebullience, and the solos are oftentimes breathtaking; Hendin, performing Kenickie's "Greased Lightnin'," scales three octaves with seemingly effortless skill, and in Danny's "Alone at the Drive-In Movie" number, Stewart - one of the most glorious singers I've ever heard at Timber Lake - appears to hit a remarkable four. (His highest high note is so tonally and comically flawless you want to applaud.) Yet in the end, it's the little things that make Beaudry's rendering of this frequently assaultive rock 'n' roll warhorse so memorable - the quirky curlicues and throwaway bits that, for 140 minutes, turn these familiar stereotypes into wonderfully goofy, flesh-and-blood people.
After Saturday's production, it'll be a long time before I don't smile when thinking of Scott's hilariously slow descent as Sandy, in cheerleader garb, attempts the splits, or Lawrence's impatient, brazen crankiness on a gospel-fueled "Beauty School Dropout," or Herr's joyous hip swivel as Roger extols his mooning techniques. I'll long remember the understated poignance of Dyer - who looks like Katherine Heigl and talks, in this role, like Rosie O'Donnell - on Rizzo's "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," and the gangly sweetness of Szen's horn-dog Sonny, and the unapologetic geekiness of Fane. (Amusingly, his Doody is just as dorky as Eugene; you sense that his pals only keep him around because Doody has rich parents with a fully stocked fridge.) And I might never forget the dazzling euphoria and quick wit of Reid's Jan. In truth, it's a Grease role I've never given much thought to; thanks to this inventive actress, it might be my new favorite.
These are fantastic, fully thought-out, beautifully well-sung performances - all 16 (-plus) of them - and costumer David Hermosillo provides wardrobe selections that make the cast's already crackling personalities pop all the more. (If Hermosillo sold Sandy's hot-pink skirt and Rizzo's tangerine dress on eBay, the man could make a fortune.) There are random bummers in the production; some of the slapstick, especially Roger's de-pantsing, is awkwardly staged, and exceptional though the show's musicians are, their playing occasionally drowns out the lyrics. (Good thing we know the songs by heart.) But overall, this Grease is about as impressive a season-opener as could be imagined. Enjoy your summer, Timber Lake recruits. I have a strong hunch I will.
For tickets and information, call (815)244-2035 or visit TimberLakePlayhouse.org.