Broadway producers hope to attract young audiences to live theater with shows like "Grease" that they can relate to.
BY BOB CURTRIGHT
Stephen Kane worries that the average age of the audience for musical theater in America these days is 55.
Movies are the big competition for the prime demographic 18-34 audience, said Kane, a Broadway producer for two decades.
But live stage shows like "Grease," which opens in Wichita Tuesday, and "Fame," which was here last year, are helping turn that around, said Kane, managing producer for both touring shows.
"'Grease' has been running for three years and 'Fame' has been running for two, and both appeal to the younger age. They can relate to the shows," Kane said.
"Once they set foot in a theater, they discover the experience can be pretty cool."
"Grease" will play at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday in Century II Concert Hall as the final show of the season for Theater League.
The 1972 Broadway show, familiar to most folks because of the 1978 movie with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, deals with teen romance and angst in 1960 at the fictional Rydell High outside Chicago.
Danny is the Elvis-like "greaser" who is the unquestioned leader of the cool guys. Sandy is the Sandra Dee-type new girl in school who wants desperately to fit in.
Both are smitten with each other during a summer fling. When they get back to school in the fall, puppy love doesn't go all that smoothly.
Among other characters are Rizzo, the supposed bad-girl leader of the Pink Ladies; Frenchie, the flighty beauty school dropout; and Kenicke, Danny's hipster right-hand man.
There's also Teen Angel, the heavenly spirit of the 1950s era (played by Frankie Avalon in the movie and earlier in this stage tour but, sadly, not in Wichita).
The musical was written by Jim Jacobs and the late Warren Casey as a loving spoof of the end of the rock era before the Beatles changed American music. Their rock and pop songs are so close to the bone that they sound absolutely period.
Among them are such familiar fare as "Greased Lightnin'," "Born to Hand Jive," "We Go Together" and "Summer Nights."
Two new songs were penned for the movie --"Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "You're the One That I Want" -- and have been added to the stage show.
While the time is half a century ago, the themes are universal, said Tiana Checchia, who plays good-girl Sandy.
"I don't think of Sandy as quaint or dated. She is a universal character for a lot of eras," Checchia said by phone from a stop in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"The audiences I've seen have been really mixed in age. There are older people whose era was the 1950s but there are young people who can still identify with the characters today."
Checchia, 26, a Long Island native who joined the cast as Sandy 16 months ago, said when she first took the role, she felt like a real-life Sandy.
"I was definitely the new girl because most of the cast had been together since the tour began three years ago. I drew from personal experiences for the right feelings," she said.
When Checchia told her friends she was in "Grease," most were surprised.
"Not that I was in the show but that I was Sandy. Most thought I should be Rizzo. That was the type of character I mostly was in high school."
Has the popularity of the movie made it hard for actors to make the roles their own?
"I'd be crazy not to start with what Olivia Newton-John did. Most people identify Sandy with her and that's fine," Checchia said. "I can't ignore that but I can add to it."
Derek Keeling, who is in his second year as hunky Danny, said that Travolta's image actually helps him.
"People liked John Travolta in the movie. so when I come out, they are automatically on my side," said Keeling, 24, who is from Charleston, W.Va.
But Keeling doesn't try to copy Travolta.
"I never grew up following the movie like everybody else. I'm doing Danny, not Travolta. The character of Danny controls what you do," he said.
Danny is a product of the 1950s, the same as Keeling's parents. Did he try to imagine them as teens for his portrayal?
"Definitely not my family," he said. "I grew up in a very conservative Southern Baptist home. I'm sure there were people like Danny around them, but not in my family," he said with a laugh.
Keeling agreed with producer Kane that young Americans need to be awakened to the theater experience more. He's glad that "Grease" is helping encourage that.
IF YOU GO
What: Broadway touring production and last show of the season for Theater League
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