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Some extra 'Grease' skids onto West Allis and Greenfield stages

Hale and Whitnall accept challenges to produce musical

Students Brett Wachowiacz (back left), Elijah Swanson and Andrew Buehlow work with auto mechanics instructor Rick Romanski (front right) to dismantle a 1947 Chrysler that will be used as a set prop for the Nathan Hale High School production of “Grease.”

Students Brett Wachowiacz (back left), Elijah Swanson and Andrew Buehlow work with auto mechanics instructor Rick Romanski (front right) to dismantle a 1947 Chrysler that will be used as a set prop for the Nathan Hale High School production of “Grease.” Photo By C.T. Kruger

March 4, 2014

Coincidentally, two area high schools will bring greasers, jocks and young love to the stage this month when they perform the theatrical version of the hit musical "Grease."

Students at Nathan Hale High School in West Allis open first, March 13, followed one week later by the young thespians at Whitnall High School.

While it's the original stage musical, not the same show that John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John subsequently made into an American movie icon, it's something that students want to see.

"The kids have been begging me to do it for years," said Laura Anderle-Smith, director of the Hale production.

These 2014 kids love the 1950s music and dancing and the whole 1950s feeling, Anderle-Smith said. Even the clothes from the era have appeal to the girls working on the costumes.

"A lot of people think the movie is exactly what the play is and it's not," said Tom Weissgerber, director of Whitnall's production, noting that some of the songs (including hit duet song "You're the One That I Want," aren't even in the original stage musical.

But the show is still packed with upbeat tunes and lots of dancing, both directors said.

Car shopping

While the kids wanted to do the show, their directors had a big headache — how to come up with the car that's central to the action. Neither director wanted to go the route of many other productions that made their own cars out of golf carts, wood or Styrofoam.

Each solved the problem differently, but both wound up with real cars for their shows.

Weissgerber managed to get a line on an early 1950s Dodge Meadowbrook that had been used for a 2010 production of "Grease" by the Hartford Players. It was available to rent from a Slinger couple.

It had been modified already to be a junker on one side and a flashy '50s speed dream on the other, thus allowing Whitnall to do the movie version where rusty Greased Lightning is transformed.

Knowing that they just needed a junker, Anderle-Smith searched Craigslist in hopes of snagging a cheap car. (Whitnall is sticking to the stage musical, in which the car isn't transformed into a beauty.) After two failed attempts, she grabbed a 1947 Pontiac in Rockford, Ill.

The sale price was less than they paid to rent the hungry flower in last year's production of "Little Shop of Horrors," so it was a relative deal, Anderle-Smith said.

The ancient Pontiac, brought by trailer to the school, had to be taken apart so the body would fit through the theater doors, then reassembled on the stage. Enter the kids with the technical know-how in the automotive classes of Hale teacher Richard Romanski.

Before the car plan even took off, Romanski asked if his students would like to work on the project after school. An enthusiastic "yes" came back.

The car arrived and the kids started working on it but time got short because it took a while to get the car. So, Romanski decided a walk through automotive history would be a good thing for his students and he had them work on the car in class for just over a week.

His students were amazed at different elements of the car — its sheer weight, its 6-volt (instead of 12-volt) system and its huge the steering wheel (because there was no power steering back then), Romanski said.

"And I told the students to think of it as community service," he said, which could benefit students when they are applying for jobs or college acceptance.

Risqué elements

Besides the car, the other biggest challenge has been the show's mature material, which includes smoking, drinking and teen pregnancy, he said.

"Some of the lyrics are pretty out there," Weissgerber said.

Along those lines, he said his students are learning how generations of kids have found ways to be provocative. A skin-tight sweater in the 1950s was as potentially risqué as a bare midriff is today, he said.

Not only that, but the circle skirts of the 1950s were designed to fly up when girls spin at a dance, he said.

"So it was a chance for the boys to be a little intrigued," Weissgerber said.

The stage is a black and white checkerboard pattern while the characters in the show each have his or her own color. Both those elements are meant to reflect a truth that Weissgerber finds embedded in the show: Everyone chooses their own colors to be, he said.

"We choose who we will be," Weissgerber said.

AT A GLANCE

Nathan Hale and Whitnall high school productions of "Grease":

NATHAN HALE HIGH SCHOOL

WHEN: 7 p.m. March 13, 14, 15 and at 2 p.m. March 16

WHERE: 11601 W. Lincoln Ave.

COST: $10; advance tickets are available by calling (414) 604-3200, Ext. 5455

WHITNALL HIGH SCHOOL

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. March 20, 21 and 22, and at 2 p.m. March 23

WHERE: 5000 S. 116th St.

COST: $15 general, $12 for seniors and students 18 and younger. They are available online at http://www.seatyourself.biz/whitnall and by phone at (414) 525-8534. Limited tickets will be available at the door (cash/check only).

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