Sunday, March 3, 2024

"Bear Grease" tour presented by New Native Theatre at Gremlin Theatre

The Edmonton-based husband and wife duo known as LightningCloud has created a new version of the classic musical Grease. What makes this Grease special is that it stars an entirely Indigenous cast, and has been reworked to reflect the Native experience. Bear Grease has played at the Edmonton Fringe Festival as well as toured around Canada and the US. And now for six performances only, New Native Theatre is presenting it at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul. The parody hits the highlights of the original, and also incorporates other classic songs of the '50s, as well as rap, hip-hop, and Native-influenced sound. It's a fun mash-up of styles and cultures, but the best part was seeing more Native people than I've ever seen in a theater audience. There were several children in the audience on opening night, and it's so moving to realize that these kids (and grown-ups) are seeing people who look like them, who make references to their culture, singing and dancing and having fun performing in this American pop culture classic.

After some pre-show entertainment, in which co-creator MC RedCloud does a little freestyle rap based on audience prompts, Bear Grease begins with a voiceover, asking us to imagine an alternate reality in which the European colonization of North America never happened. We start out with a few classic songs from the '50s. First the women, and then the men, perform instantly recognizable songs (although not yet from Grease) in the style of girl groups and boy groups of the era, complete with some smooth choreography. Then the story of Grease begins, just skimming over the highlights rather than telling the whole story. We see the "Tell Me More" scene, the boys in the shop scene ("Bear Grease Lighting"), the slumber party, and the final scene with a completely made over Sandy. Sometimes they use the songs from the original (with updated lyrics that reference Native culture), sometimes new songs, and sometimes other songs of the '50s. My favorite and I think the most clever is Danny singing "Hopelessly Devoted to You" in a traditional Native style while playing a traditional drum - the best mash-up of styles and cultures.

The ten-person Indigenous cast performs with great energy and enthusiasm, in a sort of campy parody way. Our Sandy and Danny (originally played by the creators, but in this tour embodied by Melody McArthur and Bryce Morin) are particularly great - Sandy that sweet innocent, Danny playing it too cool for school. The costumes are reminiscent of the movie, but with Native touches in the jewelry and footwear. That mix is true throughout the show, in the choreography and the performances. It really feels like a great Fringe Festival mash-up - classic '50s Americana infused with a Native vibe.

The show runs about 70-ish minutes with no intermission, and the cast sings and speaks into handheld mics, performing to a recorded track of music with some vocals. There are also some recorded audio bits, of ads and exposition, and some video projection that unfortunately was not working on opening night. It was the first performance of this tour stop, so maybe they didn't get into town soon enough to get all the tech elements set up and working. Hopefully when you see the show, you'll get the full experience (and if you do, let me know what I missed!).

Bear Grease performs through March 9 only at Gremlin Theatre, with some special theme nights. The cast will also be having a few workshops while they're in town; you can find info about both here.