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At Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, the 1950s become timeless in revival of 'Grease'

Nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1950s has been with us for so long that it’s now shared by generations of Americans who weren’t even on the planet during that decade.

Judging from the enthusiastic response of a group of teens at a recent performance of “Grease” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, this 1972 Broadway musical can still make all of us nostalgic for sock hops and drive-in movie theaters.

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It’s equally true that “Grease,” while firmly grounded in the 1950s, taps into the fundamentally eternal aspects of the high school experience. You know, there are the cool kids and the squares. There are the clueless teachers. There are the school dances and other rites of nervous passage from awkward adolescence to something that resembles adulthood.

While today’s youth culture may not be as squeaky clean as back in those wholesome Eisenhower years, the essential process of growing up hasn’t changed much.

Not only does “Grease” understand the tense social dynamics of a high school cafeteria, but the musical has memorable songs, characters you care about, a nice balance between silly scenes and more heartfelt moments, a snappy pace and, well, what’s not to like?

The Toby’s production directed and choreographed by Mark Minnick is a smartly packaged staging. Working with a production team that includes music director Ross Scott Rawlings, scenic designer David A. Hopkins and costume designer Janine Sunday, Minnick ensures that this show is fast-moving and fun.

Earlier productions of “Grease” at Toby’s and many other theaters over the decades have sometimes included actors who were a tad mature for their roles, but one of the great things about the current production is that the energetic cast is populated by young adult actors who are convincing as high school students.

That’s crucial in any staging of “Grease,” because its primal plot centers on the courtship between a blond pony tail-coiffed good girl named Sandy Dumbrowski and a black leather jacket-sporting bad boy named Danny Zuko. This is puppy love and the performers need to look right in those roles.

Likewise, the numerous Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys need to look right for the juvenile nonsense that is so important in the Rydell high school universe.

As Sandy, Nicki Elledge brings the requisite sweetness to the role, and she also is hilariously convincing when, late in the show, she demonstrates that Sandy is capable of making an evolutionary leap in the dating game by replacing a poodle skirt with black leather pants.

Although Elledge sings well throughout the evening, she could bring a bit more feeling to a couple of the most beloved songs in the show, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” It’s appropriate for Sandy’s character to seem timid, but she also needs to be able to belt out a song with showbiz fervor.

As Danny, Matt Hirsh is consistently effective at demonstrating how this popular guy is not immune to the insecurity that can afflict anybody in a dating situation. He is especially funny in a scene where Danny is making out with Sandy and isn’t sure about the etiquette of where and when to place his hands.

Hirsh is a confident vocalist, and he and Elledge have voices that nicely blend in “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want.”

Among others in the cast, Maggie Dransfield brings the right blend of toughness and vulnerability to the role of Betty Rizzo. This character’s more tender side is movingly conveyed in the song “There are Worse Things I Could Do.”

Allie O'Donnell is really spirited as a beauty school dropout named Frenchy, and Jeffrey Shankle gets a lot of comic mileage out of his role as a middle-aged radio station DJ named Vince Fontaine.

Other supporting players also make vivid individual impressions, but it’s really as members of the ensemble that they shine. The tightly coordinated choreography has them bouncing around the stage in such high-voltage songs as “Greased Lightnin'” and “We Go Together.”

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“Grease” runs through July 28 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com.

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