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WHS students rock out to 'Grease' this weekend

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Dillon Pedersen and Emma Jirele take on the lead roles of Danny and Sandy for the WHS production of "Grease."1 / 2
Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Cast members in Worthington High School's production of "Grease" pose for a photo during rehearsal Tuesday night at the Memorial Auditorium and Performing Arts Center in Worthington.2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- If you're nostalgic for the '50s -- or just pining for the '70s, when TV shows like "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley" made the '50s look fabulous -- then plan to spend Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening at Memorial Auditorium this week while Worthington High School (WHS) students bring to life the Rydell High School Class of '59 at 7:30 p.m. nightly in the theater/school version of "Grease."

"It's kind of like a living yearbook," said director Jon Loy of the energetic musical. "We want to welcome people to go back in time to the '50s, and that idea will begin in the lobby and continue when you walk into the auditorium."

"Grease" boasts a cast of more than 60 WHS students, along with about 20 other students working behind the scenes on the show's technical crew and two more joining the accompanying show band.

"The talent runs deep in this show, and audience members will experience surprises along the whole journey of the performance," said Loy, for whom "Grease" is the sixth musical he's overseen at WHS but the 28th to date in his career as a music educator. "Whether it's the '50s-style, large-ensemble dance numbers, the set design, the lighting or the music, we expect people will be very entertained by this production of 'Grease.'"

Created for the stage in 1971 by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, "Grease" was widely popularized by the celebrated 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.

This week, WHS juniors Dillon Pedersen and Emma Jirele assume the lead roles of Danny and Sandy, respectively, with Pedersen heading up the "Burger Palace Boys" and Jirele portraying the sweet "new girl" he dated over the summer at the beach but never expected to have turn up at his high school in the fall.

How Danny manages to reconcile his school-year "greaser" persona with the image he previously presented to Sandy, and how Sandy finds ways to fit in at her new school, win back Danny and make a place for herself among the "Pink Ladies" group comprises the bulk of the plot, which highlights the perils of peer pressure but also the value of friendship.

Music reigns supreme throughout, beginning with the Rydell High School "alumni" (14 District 518 faculty/staff members in cameo roles) singing the Rydell alma mater and continuing with the hummable "Summer Nights," the rocking "Greased Lightning" and the quintessentially '50s tunes like "Freddy My Love," "Those Magic Changes" and "Beauty School Dropout."

"The stage version is very family-friendly and eliminates the more risqué elements some may remember from the movie," Loy said. "Most of the favorite numbers remain in the show, but this Rydell is a little more wholesome, even though those who loved the movie will still find a lot to love about this production."

The large-ensemble number, "We Go Together," surely is descriptive of the attitude many student cast members bring to "Grease."

"I just like hanging out with everyone -- all the 'greasers' and all the chorus members," Pedersen said, who has participated in two previous school musicals. "It's just a really close-knit group of people."

While playing a lead role and preparing for solos and featured duets was admittedly "outside of my comfort zone," Pedersen said his portrayal of Danny is turning out well and "as soon as I realized people weren't there to judge me, I felt more comfortable."

Echoed senior Matt Sorensen, a pit band member who has participated in each musical of his high school career: "Being involved in the musical is a good way to be involved and meet new people."

Senior Heather Loy, seen this year as "Pink Lady" Marty, likes the opportunity each musical brings for fresh involvement.

"I really like how a lot of new faces came out for the musical this year," she said. "There's a good variety of people in the show, and I thought it was a good challenge for us to mix up the dancing a little bit; having a male choreographer was helpful because he gave tips to the guys on how to handle the moves and made the dancing portion really fun for both the kids and the audience."

Indeed, guest choreographer Ryan Domres of Moorhead choreographed the three large-ensemble dance sequences, having spent two intense weekends in early January with the students to teach them some '50s-style moves.

"Ryan makes guys look like guys, and he opened up everyone's eyes to a new dimension of musical theater," Loy said. "He is a staff choreographer for Moorhead High School and has experience with several New York dance companies, and he tried to capture the '50s spirit in the dancing."

Another partnership Loy appreciates for "Grease" is that of several Lakeshore Clips stylists who have advised, styled and in several cases cut the cast's hair into more plausible 1950s looks.

"The haircut was a big step for me," said junior Tim Skog, one of the Burger Palace Boys and an understudy for the role of Danny. "I've gone to the same stylist most of my life, and I think this is the shortest I've ever had my hair."

After using the WHS cafeteria stage for last year's production of "Annie" while Memorial Auditorium was undergoing its renovation and lobby addition, Loy was pleased to return to the more theater-friendly stage for "Grease" and is grateful for the support of the auditorium's staff, as well as for the broader involvement of parents.

"This stage offers many more opportunities for production presentation and collaboration," Loy said, noting that parents Dale Solt and Bryan Brandt, along with WHS alumnus Axel Wass, engineered and oversaw the construction of the impressive set, which includes movable staircases, doorways and a large second level.

Similarly, Judy Johnson masterminded the set's painting and detail, complete with lockers, records and the "Greased Lightning" car.

"It's been a really fun show," added Mariah Haffield, a senior who has shared production assistant duties with classmate Jenny Majerus.

Haffield is a dedicated behind-the-scenes musical participant, having been a tech crew member for "Annie," the curtain-puller for "Fiddler on the Roof" and a back-stage scene shift assistant as a freshman.

"Some people don't know what all has to happen backstage to make everything work, and it's fun to be a part of that, to see people on stage performing and knowing you helped create it," noted Haffield. "I've absolutely loved 'Grease' and being involved in this musical.

"The dance sequences are awesome," she continued. "The cast has worked extremely hard, and it shows. You don't want to miss this one."

Worthington High School presents "Grease" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Memorial Auditorium, 714 13th St., Worthington. General admission tickets are only sold at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. each night; ISD 518 activity passes are also honored.