Summer love

When it comes to crowd-pleasing musicals with proven youth appeal, ”Grease” is the word. The popular musical opens Friday for a three-weekend run as part of Kent State University at Trumbull’s Summer Stock 36 season.

Renee Johntony, who is directing the production, said, ”Everyone is familiar with the movie. Everyone can sing along with the show. It’s a performer-pleasing show as well as an audience-pleasing show.”

The Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey musical ran for eight years and nearly 3,400 performances from 1972-80 in its original Broadway incarnation, and a Broadway revival that opened in 1994 added another 1,500 performances with the help of celebrity stunt casting. Rosie O’Donnell played Rizzo in the initial revival cast, and Brooke Shields, Jody Watley, Adrian Zmed, Jeff Conaway, Jon Secada, Joe Piscopo, Lucy Lawless, Al Jarreau, Deborah Gibson, Sheena Easton, Mickey Dolenz, Chubby Checker and Debby Boone are among the performers who appeared during its run.

Still, it’s the 1978 film version that is responsible for much of the show’s enduring popularity with John Travolta as the leather-jacket-wearing Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John as good girl Sandy Dumbrowski as the show follows the antics during the 1958-59 school year at Rydell High School.

Kent-Trumbull is staging the original Broadway version, which doesn’t include some of the songs written for the film (”Hopelessly Devoted to You,” ”You’re the One That I Want”). However, the audience will hear ”Summer Nights,” ”Greased Lightning,” ”We Go Together,” ”Born to Hand Jive,” ”Beauty School Dropout” and ”There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”

If there’s a negative to staging a show that is so familiar, it’s dealing with the audiences’ expectations.

”The downside is maybe the way the kid’s interpretation of the character is put in a box,” Johntony said. ”The audience expects Danny Zuko to look and act like John Travolta and Sandy to act like Olivia Newton-John.”

Those characters are played by Makayla Robinson and Mikey McPherson in the Summer Stock production. The rest of the cast includes: Patience Knowles, Casshan Wallace, Hannah Gillespie, Chloe Book, Bryan Bennett, Brook Mayle, Joe Asente, Josh Scott, Cheri Busko, Emelia Sherin, Kyle Shaffer, Richard Starkey, Keith Stepanic, Michelle Bayma, Tori Bettura, Brianna Carsone, Becca Currence, Victoria Donadio, Haley Foster, Sarah Hunter, Morgan Jessep, Ali Limperos, Andrea Malys, Lydia Marshall, Rachael McGrail, Gillian McMahan, Lexus Rushton, Murphy Sharp, Cassie Smith, Aaron Brazofsky, Jacob Glosser, Cory Halfast, Justin Kenney, Justin Palo, J.T. Talkington and Chris Wilson.

Musical director Mackenzie Pinto plays keyboards and leads the band featuring Kevin Kifer, percussion; Matthew Johntony, bass; Frank Johntony, guitar; and Josh Cokrlic, saxophone.

Johntony has appeared in ”Grease” and directed the musical before, but that doesn’t make it easier directing it a second time.

”I try to give it a clean slate and start over,” she said. ”It’s a mixture of new personalities in the cast, a new technical designer, new costumer, new choreographer.”

She credited technical director Tony E. Kovacic for the inventive stage design, which places a giant jukebox at the back of the stage and transforms the steps leading up to the second level into stacks of records.

”Tony’s an extremely creative man,” Johntony said. ”I absolutely loved it from the beginning. When I’ve seen ‘Grease’ before, it seems to be a pretty standard set, but he puts a twist on things.”

And unlike the last time Summer Stock staged ”Grease,” there will be an actual vehicle – a beat-up pickup truck – on stage for ”Greased Lightning.”

”Twenty years ago they used a golf cart and kind of spruced it up,” Johntony said. ”Tony was out driving around and saw this car in somebody’s yard. He approached them and they were really excited to give it to us to use. It adds a little humor to the number.”