Review: ‘Grease’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia

Toby's production of 'Grease' raises the intensity, polish, and fun of a well-known story.

Grease can be a sad tale of peer pressure, teen pregnancy, insecure futures, and violence. Based on a book of the same name by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the story was about greasers, pre-Beatles rock-and-roll, and street life in Chicago. But Director Mark Minnick and his talented troupe turn the tale into a purely entertaining evening at Toby’s Dinner & Show.

Nicki Elledge and Matt Hirsh in ‘Grease.’ Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

The musical opens with the purity of young love over the summer at a beach in Chicago. Sandy Dumbrowski (Nicki Elledge) and Danny Zuko (Matt Hirsh) met over the summer and spent innocent time – thinking they would go to different high schools – falling in unveiled love. As they recount their experiences in a duet of “Summer Nights,” the naughty Pink Ladies and lewd Burger Palace Boys provide a rousing chorus.

Once back on the familiar grounds of Rydell High, Zuko is more interested in maintaining his cool rep than hooking up with the love of his life. Poor innocent Sandy doesn’t understand Danny or the girls who cuss, drink, and smoke at the new school. She attempts to fit in with the establishment crowd. Sandy makes the cheerleading squad, but finds out the captain, Patty (Louisa Tringali), has eyes for her bad-boy Danny.

The rest of the school year is filled with ups and downs, mostly the downs of Zuko and Sandy D’s relationship. Several other performers step up in the process. Doody (Taylor Witt), a guitar-wielding greaser, wows the chicks with a mind-blowing “Those Major Changes.”

Toby’s version of “Greased Lightin’ ” by Kenickie (Paul Roeckell) is phenomenal. Marty (Nia Savoy) has the allure of a money-grubbing, spoiled teenage girl with “Freddy My Love.” In other words: mission accomplished.

The ever tough Betty Rizzo (Maggie Dransfield) excels in her solos “Look At Me I’m Sandra Dee” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” But the character is the pits. It is as if Rizzo, Marty, and Frenchy (Allie O’Donnell) see their character weaknesses as strengths. The boys aren’t mature enough to have much character, but Vietnam will be calling in a few years. This musical is pointing to the future.

Unlike some versions of this musical, these numbers and others, raise the level of performance in intensity, polish, and fun.

Cast of ‘Grease.’ Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

One of my favorite numbers is the song-and-dance performed by Jan (Kalen Robinson) and Roger (Justin Calhoun) in “Mooning.” They combine ability, charm, and teamwork to turn a ridiculous song into a jaw-dropping love song. Speaking of dancing, Cha-Cha (Rachel Kemp, who doubles as the dance captain) steals a scene at the hop when she wins the dance contest with Zuko.

The acting, costumes, dancing, and singing are terrific in this rendition of Grease, but some special attention goes to wig stylist Jayson Kueberth. Toby’s is a dinner theater and the actors wait tables, with makeup, sans costumes or wigs. About half an hour before the performance, the waiters disappear to become actors. The effects of Janine Sunday’s 1959-era clothing and Kueberth’s hair are much appreciated additions. Of particular notice is what they did with Johnny Casino (Decarlo Rasperry). His hair and outfit are fab.

Casino’s “Born to Hand-Jive” had the cast and audience moving. He and Vince Fountain’s (Jeffery Shankle) “Shakin’ at the High School Hop” was also riveting.

Actors and the running crew moved props effortlessly to create different scenes, and Minnick used every inch of floor, and some aisles, for a stage. And what would a musical be without music? Ross Scott Rawlings leads an orchestra that hit the right note every time. 

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with a 30-minute intermission.

Grease is playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD, through July 28, 2019. For tickets, call (410) 730-8311 or go online