GREECE UNDER THE LIGHTS

In 1969, an a cappella group at Columbia University called the Kingsmen ditched their jackets, ties and alter boy image in favor of slicked back coifs and gold lame. They became known as Sha Na Na and immediately put to practice a retroactive repertoire of ’50 rock ‘n’ roll singing and dancing. An immediate hit with audiences, Sha Na Na performed the “Grease Under Stars” concert at New York’s Low Plaza and made a subsequent appearance at Woodstock and headlined at notable venues from coast to coast. The bustling act spawned the Broadway musical, “Grease” and Sha Na Na continued to bring its act to festivals, including a spring of ’69 extravaganza at Wollman Rink. Titled “The Glory That Was Grease,” the show wasn’t merely a celebration of Elvis Presley’s hairdo, it was also a nod, inadvertently, to ancient Greece and its gods through innuendo.

Little did anyone know that the connection between Greece and “Grease” would resurface with added emphasis some three decades later – and in Montecito.

On May 16, in an effort to educate Montecito Union students about Greek mythology the school’s Parent Teacher Association staged an hour-long musical incorporating as characters all the big name gods, from Zeus to Aphrodite, Hercules to Hera. A wild mélange of Greek lore and the Broadway play, “Grease,” the 11-member all-parent cast performed nine numbers with dialogue to an audience of a few hundred in the school auditorium. They called it “Greece.”

The play was part of the PTA’s Books for Bedtime program, an extracurricular activity meant to engage Montecito Union students into reading. Early renditions of the program were as basic as one parent reading from a children’s book on stage to an audience of lulled students. Recent enactments, however, have become increasingly more involved, and parents haven’t been shy to take their act a step further.

“Normally we would literally find books and find entertaining ways to introduce these books,” says Ann Kale, who plays Persephone and wrote a lot of the 27-page script. “Our struggle was, as fascinating as Greek mythology is, it’s difficult for children to comprehend.”

“Greece” opens with that same premise. Kale stands on stage beginning as every Books for Bedtime has opened before, with a parent reading monotonously about the gods and their extensive lineage. During the discourse, Kale is constantly interrupted by Frankie Avalon (Mark Hunt), who indicates she’s “putting everyone to sleep” and that “there’s a better way to teach Greek mythology.”

“And I suppose you’re prepared to show me how?” Kale asks him.

“Yes! I am.”

That’s when a voice emanates from the dark like a radio deejay, introducing the gods as residents of Mount Olympus who jostled for power and recognition. “But before these gods could rule the world, they all had to endure one tremendous test,” the voice warns. “They had to go to Mount Olympus High School.”

Then, the music starts and the guys walk in with bravado while the girls come from the stage wings waving flirtatiously at the boys. To the sound of “Greece is the word,” written by Bill Cuttler, whose wife, Michele, plays Echo, the gods introduce themselves. Enter Zeus (Ted Simmons), god of lightning and “BMCOC – the big man on campus.”

“Gods and mortals alike tremble at his terrible wrath,” Hunt, who also plays Hercules, recites. “He’s caused rain, drought, good weather and bad weather.”

“Yeah, blame him for May Gray,” says Bob Kupiec, as Nemesis (who was actually a goddess).

Education Meets Entertainment

“Greece” was propelled largely by non-stop “Grease” wordplay. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” became “Hopelessly Devoted to Zeus,” “Look at me I’m Sandra Dee” turned into “Look at me I’m Aphrodite,” and so on.

“Some of the parodies that they come up with are just ridiculous,” says Ted Simmons.

Ted’s wife, Kelly (known in fundraising circles as the Weird Al Yankovic of Montecito), wrote four of the songs, carrying the play forward despite the fact that the plurality of cast members had little if no theater experience.

But there was more to it than just clever puns. Medusa, played by Sheela Hunt with flailing snakes in her hair, laments how she was punished by Athena in the number, “Beauty School Dropout.”

“Goddess school dropout, no graduation day for you,” the lyrics go. “Packed on some pounds, yes, quite a few.”

The play provides enough substance and subtlety to hold a parent audience. Near the beginning, Persephone explains to fellow goddesses that Hades offered her a deal that she would be freed from the underworld if she hadn’t eaten anything. She confesses she had eaten three pomegranate seeds, to which Pandora (Shelly Ballmer) retorts, “You never could stay on a diet.”

Ted says “we had a spicier version” and adds that the parents are considering auctioning off a private performance to exhibit the racier material.

Ultimately, the goal is for the students to learn, and to that end, they’re given plenty of chances. They figure out that Zeus overthrew his dad Cronus, who killed his own kids Hestia, Demester, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. They also find out that Pandora’s box (originally called a jar) is full of all the world’s evils – greed, vanity, pain, Osama Bin Laden and perhaps even hemorrhoids (each of the world’s evils are personified by a Montecito Union student.) The lessons of the play are also reinforced through a Powerpoint presentation.

“This was a great anchor as it highlighted the key ideas and roots of many of the well-known stories and myths,” says Sue Carmody, a Montecito Union sixth grade teacher who teaches Greek mythology as part of her curriculum. “The play was a great extension to what the kids learned in the classroom in our social studies and literature classes. Any time you add live drama, familiar music, high energy, fun and humor you are sure to captivate a sixth-grader’s attention.”

Books for Bedtime Awakes

School parents and administrators have asked the cast for an encore. Montecito Union sixth-graders will soon get a special reenactment, and before long, “Greece” may find itself on the road – Ted talked about bringing the show to Carpinteria.

“It was too fun much to do and we all miss it terribly,” he says. “We all get along just famously.”

The warm response highlights the reawakening of Books for Bedtime, which until this school year had languished in quality and energy. “Quite frankly, it was starting to get very dull,” says Kale, who took over the program with husband, Bob Kupiec, in September of last year.

For the Halloween show, the parents put together a fright fest of sorts, with mingling ghosts, goblins and other scary stuff. The Holiday Read featured a 1940s radio program. Kale says the parents realized that, “when you’re learning something it’s best to be interrupted with something fun.”

The cast has brought the idea of parent volunteerism to an entirely new plateau. They wrote a full script, they built sets, practiced multiple times a week and even had a singing coach. Requests for a new play are inevitably getting pitched. Parodies of Washington Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow” and “The Adams Family” are among ideas being considered.

“We’re so excited that no one wants to wait until September to prepare for our next performance,” says Kale. “I’ve never been on a committee where people are so excited to volunteer.”

But “Greece” may have its own special longevity. The cast members are pondering cleaning up their script and copyrighting the idea, while admirers of the show have encouraged the parents to sell the play to a production house.

“In our capable hands, Books for Bedtime has now transcended books,” Ted says with a chuckle. “The good thing is that when we sell the rights to this to Broadway, we can put the kids through college.”