Erin Helm of Cedar Rapids is living her childhood dreams, playing Rizzo in “Grease,” opening Friday (9/15) at Theatre Cedar Rapids and continuing weekends through Oct. 8. 

She’d secretly rather be Kenickie, Rizzo’s greaser boyfriend, in the tale of high school fun and foibles set in 1959, where in the end, the kids go together like “rama lama lama, ka dinga da dinga dong.”

“I watched the movie so, so, so much growing up — like it’s absurd,” Helm said during a recent roundtable interview with the some of the cast and directing team. Now just 23, she wasn’t even born when the 1978 hit movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John made bad cool again.

“At sleepovers, we would mimic all the choreography,” she said. “It’s pretty ridiculous — usually ‘Greased Lightnin’.’ Not being Kenickie is still hurting a little bit.”

“Sorry,” said David Scanlon, 29, of Cedar Rapids, who landed that role.

“It’s fine,” she whispered with feigned pain.

But, in the hands of director Angie Toomsen, music director Benjamin Schmidt and choreographer Aaron Canterbury, it’s not the “Grease” she memorized with little-girl stars in her eyes.

“That muscle memory of singing every song over and over again” is hard to shake, especially when switching from background to melody or vice versa, she said. “It’s been in my brain for years.”

It’s a hit parade that also includes “Summer Nights,” “Freddy, My Love,” “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” “We Go Together,” “Born to Hand Jive” and “Beauty School Dropout.”

“I’m having fun finding new ways to do old songs,” Schmidt, 25, of Cedar Rapids, said. “The key theme that I’ve been saying to everyone in solos sessions has been, ‘Everyone knows this song, so for the first verse and chorus, let’s do it the way they know it, and then from that point on, let’s try to show them the version of this song they didn’t know existed. Our versions, your versions.’ That’s a lot of fun.”

“That got really fun really quick,” Scanlon added.

Making everything old new again is the goal, along with getting to the heart of the characters and their angst over bullying, teen pregnancy, identity crises, self-respect, self-worth and core values.

“It certainly (has) very fun and upbeat songs, but there are real issues at the heart of them,” said Toomsen, 44, of Iowa City.

“And what I’m finding as we’re working on it, is trying to find a fresh take on each of the characters and songs, and finding the reason for each of them, as opposed to ‘Now is when we sing the hand jive.’ Finding the heart, and connecting it to universalities about high school,” she said. “Even though it’s the most well-known musical on the planet — even people who aren’t musical people tend to know it — I think a lot of times it gets glossed over with some of the serious issues it addresses.”

“It’s almost a farce in the way it sarcastically addresses all of the super-important things,” Schmidt said. “It’s not a farce, but it has that sort of blunt way of addressing an issue for a moment, and then moving on. Nothing lingers.”

“Like a bouncing character dropping a truth bomb,” Scanlon said.

“Which is what sets ours apart,” Helm added. “That truth doesn’t immediately stop when the next random showtune starts. Angie’s been really good at pushing us to find the realness in it, instead of just watching the movie and being that caricature of Rizzo that everyone knows, or Kenickie or Sandy. Breaking all those mannerisms that we have grown up watching, and making it real to now.”

Still, it’s set in 1959, so the young cast did have to Google some terms, like “ciggy butt,” that have gone the way of flat-tops and sock hops.

Emma Drtina and Charlie Vogl are sliding into the lead roles of goody new-girl Sandy and bad-boy-wannabee Danny. Can the couple continue their summer romance while trying to rise above their reputations?  

It’s a three-peat for Vogl, 33, of Cedar Rapids, who played Danny in junior high, then at Theatre Cedar Rapids in 2005.

“I have a soft spot for the role,” he said. “I think my favorite thing about it has changed every time I get the chance to learn and perform the show. This time, it’s been more fun to see Danny in a three-dimensional way.

“I really hope and pray that this time around, people will not only be happy with what they see, but also raise an eyebrow at the same time, because we’ve taken the time to give a little more humanity to each person, versus just the cartoon character I think we all remember them as being.

“It’s a lot more movin’ and groovin’ this time than in ’05, too,” said Vogl, who with his wife, Stephanie, own and operate The Dancer’s EDGE studio in Hiawatha. Being a dancer instead of an instructor onstage has been “such a breath of fresh air,” he said. “It’s so relaxing, and I feel just free and at peace.”

Playing Sandy is a special treat for Drtina, 28, of Cedar Rapids, who just wanted to be in the show, never dreaming she’d play the lead.

“I just wanted to be ‘whatever.’ When I found out I was Sandy, I was pretty shocked, but excited,” she said, “because it’s definitely a new challenge for me. I’m excited to be pushed to a new level. I’ve always put myself in a box as a funny sidekick. ... I’m excited to be able to learn from the character and bring something new — bring a part of me to the character that maybe hasn’t been seen before.”

GET OUT!

WHAT: “Grease”
WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
WHEN: Friday (9/15) to Oct. 8; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
RATED: PG-13 — Parents strongly cautioned
TICKETS: $31 to $40, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
CURTAIN RAISER: opening night party and fundraiser, 6 to 11:30 p.m. Friday (9/15); includes social hour 6 to 7:30 p.m., performance and post-show sock hop; $75, ’50s-style attire encouraged