Stage Review: Hattiloo's 'Grease' slips a little, but still slides home with the music

Alicia Ester as Rizzo and James Cook as Danny get the eye from Princeton Echols as Kenickie in 'Grease' at Hattiloo Theatre. (Jon W. Sparks/Special to The Commercial Appeal)

Alicia Ester as Rizzo and James Cook as Danny get the eye from Princeton Echols as Kenickie in "Grease" at Hattiloo Theatre. (Jon W. Sparks/Special to The Commercial Appeal)

Hattiloo’s ‘Grease’ slips a little, but still slides home with the music

Hattiloo Theatre is on an impressive trajectory, although it wobbles on occasion.

The black repertory theater has generated a lot of good will as it begins its eighth season. Its programming choices are intriguing and often bold, it’s diligent about reaching out to the community and the organization has been solid enough to start a new era next year in a new building on Overton Square.

It’s making a difference in the local cultural scene, although the season opener of the musical “Grease” is a decidedly mixed bag.

Director Ekundayo Bandele, who is also Hattiloo’s founder and executive/artistic director, immerses us in 1959’s high school sensibility, which is much like any high school sensibility except for more leather jackets and hand jive. It was also a time when gangs had rumbles instead of drive-bys, and youthful lawbreakers stole hubcaps instead of identities.

When it’s good, it’s terrific. The company pulls off the big, catchy song-and-dance numbers with enormous charm and energy. The choreography and singing on high-octane pieces like “We Go Together” and “You’re the One That I Want” raise the roof of the tiny theater.

But sometimes the stage action teeters on the edge of clumsiness, and not all the soloists do justice to their tunes. The overall energy and good intentions radiated by the production can’t compensate for those rough edges.

Although there are unimpressive moments, there are also standout performances to make you cheer.

Stefani Bolton’s Sandy transforms from plain to radiant and has a beautiful, well controlled voice. Sandy’s love interest is Danny, played by James Cook, who solidly delivers the cockiness and frustration of a kid confused by love. And there’s just not enough of the glorious voice of Destanie Jennings as Frenchy — her chops as a gospel singer and actor are strong.

Princeton Echols, Kelsey Hodge and Justin T. Johnson also bring skill and personality to the ensemble production.

Like some teens, Hattiloo’s “Grease” is rough and not quite ready, but sometimes it hits just the right notes.

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