Everything is full circle for Laurie Walton.
Just last June, The Riverdale Y honored the founder and director of the Riverdale Performing Arts Center for her 18 years of work at the 5625 Arlington Ave., facility. But in order to fully accept this celebration, Walton had one condition.
“I only agreed to be honored if we honored the kids as well,” she said.
That agreement resulted in putting on a production of “Grease,” the musical theatre classic that primarily revolves around the budding love of two 1950s teenagers, Sandy and Danny. The play happens to be the first show Walton directed when she began The Y’s Riverdale Rising Stars program for teens.
“Grease” opened March 31 and runs through April 14.
Putting together “Grease” almost two decades into her tenure at The Y has been quite the experience for Walton, who can’t help but reminisce about the first time she directed it since her daughter, now 31, was the first local teen to portray Sandy.
“It’s been surprisingly emotional for me, partly because when I started the program 18 years ago, my daughter was only 13 years old,” Walton said. “And so that alone brings me back.”
With the same energy, enthusiasm and devotion to acting as there was when she began, Walton says not much has changed about the kids who come into the program each year. The one difference? Her seasoned ability to direct.
“I’ve grown as a director, the theater has grown with production values, and everything’s just sort of more professional now than it was when we had no money and literally put glitter things up on the stage,” Walton said. “It’s like night and day.”
Working on “Grease” also has given Walton a chance to think about what she’s taken away from directing teens and how confident she’s gotten in the process.
“I’ve learned a lot about kids,” she said. “I’ve learned about their capacity to develop themselves on stage and what I can get from them.”
While the Riverdale Rising Stars typically take about 10 to 12 weeks to rehearse, “Grease” only took about half that. Yet, there were still some challenges and insightful discussions along the way.
One thing Walton noticed during this production process was that many of the teens were unfamiliar with the 1978 movie starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. Some only knew of “Grease” from “Grease: Live,” a television special that aired on Fox in 2016 starring notable actors like Vanessa Hudgens and Julianne Hough.
Rehearsals took off immediately, Walton said, once her teen performers familiarized themselves with the classic film.
“The minute they watched the movie, they got hooked on the songs, which of course is the draw of ‘Grease,’” Walton said. “So they learned it really, really fast.”
As production was underway, however, one of the girls pointed out she was uncomfortable with the ending of “Grease,” the famous moment where Sandy appears in a skintight black outfit, having completely changed her look to appeal to her boyfriend Danny.
“I was watching it on TV and it became my new best musical until the end when Sandy came out and I thought, ‘What? Why would she do that?’” Walton said she recalls the girl saying to her.
Instead of shrugging off the concern, Walton decided to have a larger discussion with the group about some of the misogynistic issues they had with the play. Those included some of the messages being sent to teens like smoking cigarettes, how the boys talk to girls in various scenes, and even the context of the song “Summer Nights.”
As she navigated through this challenge for the first time, Walton said the experience putting “Grease” together became much more of an educational experience than she thought it’d be.
“The truth is, I’ve learned a lot from them and how they feel,” she said. “And I would have never thought that ‘Grease’ would get that response, but it did.”
It also made her grateful for the comfortable atmosphere Riverdale Rising Stars seems to provide for its teens to voice their opinions.
“I’m happy that they feel comfortable and open with me that they can sit in a circle and share their thoughts,” Walton said. “They don’t all agree with each other, and it’s so great to that kind of environment where we can sit and have an open dialogue — especially in today’s world where there’s a lot of disagreement.”
In the end, Walton decided to change Sandy’s look in the final scene.
“I said, ‘Look, it doesn’t have to be that way at all to tell the story,” she said.
Walton came up with a compromise. In the final scene of the play, Sandy appears in a completely different outfit and changes some details about Danny’s story that gives the two some more character development.
“So he kind of transforms and she transforms,” Walton said. “It’s not one doing it for the other, and everyone was much happier with that ending. It doesn’t change the story at all. It just makes it a little cleaner.”
The cast and crew even drafted a letter to the audience included in the playbill stating “Grease” may portray life in the ‘50s, but it’s not what they support, Walton said.
Even with this teachable experience, Walton is excited to see audiences enjoy a theatre classic.
“They’re going to walk away singing ‘Summer Nights’ and ‘We Go Together’ and the songs that everybody knows,” she said.
That’s because for Walton, the constant of shows like “Grease” is the fun music that appeals to multiple generations.
“We can love or hate ‘Grease,’” she said, “but unless you’re a real curmudgeon, you cannot not watch this and really smile with the music and the joy of it.”