SCS graduate students sing and dance in Greeze

Unlikely cast puts on surprising, entertaining rendition of the classic 1970s musical Grease

Jan 30, 2012

Kresge Theatre was filled with an eager audience on Saturday night who came to see a production of Greeze, a musical tribute to the 1970s hit Grease. There was not, however, a single musical theater, vocal performance, or acting major on stage.

Instead, the performance was by YinzerStar, a group of graduate students in the School of Computer Science that puts on musicals, joined in this production by some friends unaffiliated with the university. The stars of the show were temporarily migrating away from their computers towards the glitz and glamour of the performing arts.

The ambience before the show screamed of the ’50s — audience members appeared to be smoking cigarettes but upon closer inspection were actually nibbling on Victory candy cigarettes, a clever freebie given out by the ushers at the door as people filed in. Musical hits like “Lollipop” and “Yakety Yak” played as audience members read the playbill and waited for the show to start.

The house ran out of playbills — which included funny character fact cards to prepare the audience for the world of the play — well before the start of the show, suggesting that many more people attended the performance than expected. When asked how they found out about the performance, most audience members said they were students in the School of Computer Science or friends of the performers. The show seemed to be a well-kept secret, meant to circulate primarily within the computer science community.

Some, however, were skeptical that computer science Ph.D. students could put on a successful musical, something that seemed so contrastive to their usual day’s work. “When [my friend] told me there was an SCS musical, I was reasonably confident he was pulling my leg,” said David Franklin, a first-year computer science major.

The performers certainly surprised the audience, though.

Nick Benore, who co-directed the musical and played Danny Zuko, bore an uncanny resemblance to the 1978 film version’s John Travolta and had the singing and acting skills to boot. Co-star Emily Stiehl as Sandy had a sweet voice and disposition, charming audience members during intermission when she taught them the hand jive so they could join in the classic “Born to Hand Jive” scene. The actors’ cartwheeling, singing, and dancing were definitely sights to be seen.

This was YinzerStar’s second show, produced by Thomas LaToza, a software engineering Ph.D. student, who put on Jesus Christ Yinzerstar with a group of computer science Ph.D. students last year. Greeze incorporated clever references to last year’s well-received show, such as inviting back Gus Xia — a Ph.D. student in machine learning who played Zealotes last year — to be the Teen Angel Advisor and sing a warning against becoming a graduate-school dropout.

“We had a lot of fun with [_Jesus Christ Yinzerstar_], so we wanted to do another show,” LaToza said. He added that this year, with the lack of an extensive pit orchestra, he wanted to choose a show that revolved around a smaller band.

Benore said that Greeze was enjoyable to put on because of the students involved. “We worked with such an enthusiastic group of people,” Benore raved. The challenge was balancing schoolwork with rehearsals, although Benore pointed out that the cast members did a great job doing so — a surprising feat, considering the amount of research and work that Ph.D. students undertake here.

The close-knit community was evident as the performers made many references to Carnegie Mellon’s graduate school, sometimes directly addressing the audience in jest. Overall, the success of the show and the audience’s enjoyment was no doubt due to the enthusiasm of those involved in this performance.