'Grease' slides down easily at Toby's Baltimore Dinner Theatre

A summer night at the theater seems like just the right occasion to hear the song "Summer Nights" in "Grease." It's the kind of show that can be enjoyed in any season, of course, but it's so light and silly that it's especially welcome at this time of year. Toby's Baltimore Dinner Theatre rises to that occasion with an energetic production.

However often you have seen the stage and movie versions of"Grease,"it's easy to get caught up all over again in its celebration of high school life. Although the show is loaded with topical references to reinforce its setting in the late 1950s, it also makes the point that the high school experience is eternal. There are cool kids and nerds, awkward dates, big dances and even a formidable school principal.

The Toby's production benefits from a mostly youthful cast that's having a great time on stage. During such ensemble numbers as "Born to Hand-Jive" and "We Go Together," all of that smiling and shaking and joyous singing make this a very happy place to be; and musical director Douglas Lawler supplies the orchestral support to underscore that good cheer.

On a more individual level, this show also comes alive when its two very different protagonists realize that they have their love for each other to cut through those differences. Danny Zuko is a black leather-jacketed guy who is a little rough around the edges, while Sandy Dumbrowski is a blonde cheerleader who's sweet and innocent.

As Danny, Tim Rogan gives such a confident performance that he carries the show with swaggering ease; and he has a powerfully smooth singing voice that makes him quite a catch for Sandy and for the show itself.

Lara Zinn has the potential to be a terrific Sandy, but isn't there yet. She has the wholesome good looks to perfectly fill this role, and likewise projects the endearing goody-goody personality one expects from Sandy. Her acting is generally solid, but occasionally seems tentative.

This sense of uncertainty sometimes affects Zinn's technically impressive singing voice. She's consistently fine doing "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," but doesn't always seem sure where to place the dramatic emphasis in "Hopelessly Devoted to You." It seems likely that this actor will grow into the role as the run continues and, in any event, Zinn and Rogan already possess the stage chemistry to make Sandy and Danny seem made for each other.

Although Sandy and Danny are the lead characters, "Grease" is a show with such zesty supporting characters that these sidekicks routinely get to upstage the proceedings. Their non-stop pranks and fights serve as a funny reminder that growing up ain't easy.

The loudest of these characters seems all the louder and funnier owing to the performance by Tina Marie DeSimone as Betty Rizzo, whose cheerful vulgarity makes all the good clean fun seem a little less, er, clean. It's hilarious listening to Rizzo describe her dating experiences in language that's not quite hearts and flowers.

DeSimone really nails this character, and her powerhouse performance makes it easy to forgive the fact that she's a tad mature to be playing a high school kid.

Besides embodying Rizzo, DeSimone also directed and choreographed this production. Just as Rizzo bounces around the group scenes with great timing, the show itself has beautifully coordinated stage movement that makes everything flow. The only exception is at the very end of the show, where the questionable decision to tack on additional musical material to "We Go Together" leaves one wondering exactly where this is going.

It's such a pleasant cast that one doesn't mind going along for such musical tangents. Everybody in the cast is enjoyable to watch and the actors playing the so-called Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys almost all seem convincing as high school students. Among those making a delightful impression in their teen roles are Chris Rudy as Doody, Amanda Kaplan as Patty, Celia Blitzer as Jan and Emily Lentz as Frenchy.

Aside from DeSimone, the only other age-related exception in this production is Peter N. Crews as the borderline juvenile delinquent Kenickie, who looks too middle-aged to be foolishly stealing cars and singing "Greased Lightning." Oh, well, maybe this particular high school student was held back quite a few grades.

"Grease" runs through Sept. 9 at Toby's Baltimore Dinner Theatre, located in the Best Western Hotel and Conference Center, 5625 O'Donnell Street in Baltimore. Call 410-649-1660 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

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