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Director strives to present authentic ‘Grease’

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♦ Sept. 12-Oct. 7

♦ Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora

♦ Tickets, $34.90-$46.90

♦ (630) 896-6666;

Updated: October 9, 2012 2:18PM

Michael Unger, currently directing the Paramount Theatre’s production of “Grease,” just wants to keep things real.

“You have to be authentic,” Unger said. “If you are honest to the material, the audience will find their way into the show either as a nostalgia piece or as kids relating to kids. The kids depicted in this show are not at the top of the food chain. It is a teenage rebellion piece.”

“Grease” will be presented from Sept. 12 to Oct. 7 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Set in the late 1950s, the story of “Grease,” with book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, centers on bad boy Danny Zuko and girl next door Sandy Dumbrowski who spend a romantic summer together. When Sandy appears at Rydell High School on the first day of school, it turns Danny’s world upside-down. What follows is a rock ‘n’ roll celebration of growing up, cruisin’ with friends and going steady.

Contrary to the popular 1978 movie version of “Grease,” which starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, the characters in the show were not first envisioned as the epitome of cool. Instead, authors Jacobs and Casey originally wrote a play called “Grease Lightning” based on Jacobs’ experience at William Taft High School in Chicago. Taft was populated with teenage loners and misfits, all just trying to find friends like themselves.

“Grease Lightning” debuted in 1971 in the original Kingston Mines Theatre in Chicago. With input from New York producers, the play was retooled into a full-fledged musical and re-titled “Grease.” “Grease” opened Off-Broadway in 1972 and then moved to Broadway, where it played a total of 3,388 performances before closing in April 1980. The show won seven Tony Awards.

The Paramount production of “Grease” features Jacobs and Casey songs such as “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightnin’” and “We Go Together,” which were made famous by the original 1971 stage production. In addition, the show offers songs from the 1978 motion picture, including “Sandy” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

“The music is familiar,” said Unger about the show’s appeal. “People may come first for the music and then they become engaged in the characters and moved by these kids and their problems. This is a slightly cleaned-up version of the original play. It is not the movie. We will have some songs from the movie, but only to further the story, not because the audience might like it.”

To prepare the cast for re-creating characters from the 1950s, Unger started rehearsals with some visual aids.

“For the first day of rehearsal I put together a presentation with old TV ads and clips from old TV shows like ‘77 Sunset Strip,’” Unger said. “The [presentation] touched on President Dwight Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev and the first color TV. It was a half-hour ‘era’ presentation to try to get a sense of what was going on at that time.”

And capturing the essence of the time period is crucial to the play’s success, according to Unger.

“This show is a loving look at adolescence,” he said. “These kids were misfits, but they had each other. The nostalgia of the piece is the most important aspect.”

Randall G. Mielke is a local free-lance writer.

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