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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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River Ridge High delivers with 'Grease'

NEW PORT RICHEY - Students with gelled hair, poodle skirts and frilly 1950s-style dresses graced the stage at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge last week for three nights of "Grease the Musical." After a debate with River Ridge High School drama teacher Diana Rogers over which musical to perform, the group agreed on the 1950s story of a group of teenagers at the fictional Rydell High School as they break up and make up, drop out of school and race fast cars. Most people associate "Grease" with the 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, but the production had been a theater favorite since 1971, starting in Chicago. The budding actors stayed true to the original stage play with songs such as "Rydell Alma Mater" and "Freddy, My Love" but included movie favorites such as "Hopelessly Devoted," "Sandy" and "You're the One That I Want."
Michael Mekus, one of the play's leads, Danny Zuko, has performed in several musicals. The 16-year-old has been in "Little Shop of Horrors," "Annie" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie," among others. "I love that high at the end of the curtain call when everyone is cheering and calling your name," he said. "I live for that." The sophomore worried about "filling the shoes of John Travolta," but he nailed it, especially during "You're the One That I Want," his favorite song in the production. Michael has two more years to build his acting résumé, but some, such as senior Nikki Dermott, who played Rizzo, are set to graduate in June. After Sunday's performance, there was a senior send-off. "I'm not a crier," Nikki said. "I tried. It was a really great production we settled on, and I'm typically not the one to be sad. I'm psyched because I know what I'm doing with my life." The 17-year-old is exploring performing arts schools in New York and expects to pursue musical theater or film. She enjoyed her last major high school performance as a female "Greaser" with an attitude, even though she originally auditioned as Sandy. "I told her: 'I don't see you as Sandy,' " said Rogers, an experienced actress who performed in "Les Misérables" as Madame Thénardier at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway and for two years on the national tour. " 'You've got the voice and the attitude, and I see you as Rizzo.' "I tell them, 'You've got to look at yourself like ice cream. If this is Thanksgiving, I've got to put the right ice cream with the pie. I can't put chocolate peppermint with pumpkin. It's not that you're not good; I just didn't need chocolate peppermint this time. I needed vanilla.' " With set building, stage production, acting, dancing, music and directing, more than 100 people came together to make the production a success. Ticket sales pay the debt created to produce the school's shows, which typically cost about $6,000. "I don't think the public realizes we are self-funded," Rogers said. "You have to pay royalty fees, money to rent microphones and purchase materials to build the sets, and miscellaneous fees for directors, costumes and anything else the production needs. "Fundraising is difficult to do in this economy," Rogers said, so the group comes in with a little money in the pot from the previous school year's productions and adds to it with early ticket sales. The rest of the money comes from ticket sales at the door. "It's kind of scary if you don't sell the tickets and you go into the hole," Rogers said. The "Grease" cast shouldn't have to worry too much this time around. Nearly every seat in the three performances was filled, and standing ovations were given at curtain drop. "Kids have to pay to play a lot of athletics," Rogers said. "We try not to do that. For a lot of these kids, we are the only niche they have. They can find a place they can belong. By coming here, they can be a part of something that means something in their lives."

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