Young People’s Theatre: “You’re the One That I Want”

Young People’s Theatre: “You’re the One That I Want”

GreasePosterfinal copyWe remember it like yesterday.

Friday evening, February 9, 2001 we were in the audience for the opening night of the Sheridan Arts Foundation Young People Theater production of “Grease,” the jumping, jitterbugging, and leaping spoof of all the rock ‘n roll movies made in that era (the 1950s) by American International Pictures. In our review, we described the production as “a double cheeseburger deluxe with a side of ketchup-soaked fries. As good as it gets.”

And now, 13 years later – and 15 years after she established the Young People’s Theater program – director Jen Julia is spoofing the spoof. Her latest production. “You’re the One That I Want: The High School Grease,” is wholly original, with script and lyrics by Jen and music by Ethan Hale and Bob Callendale Israel. The ensemble cast features 28 Telluride students, who tell the story of a high school cast as they audition for and perform in a student-directed production of “Grease,” the Holy Grail of high school musicals.

Why does “Grease” remain a cult favorite? Because the world it portrays never existed or always existed. Who can forget a first love? Your first rejection? A crisis of self-esteem? Getting your first car? Making out? Attending a prom? The coolest guy in the class? The girls who “put out” like Rizzo. The girls who said “no” like  Sandy. Growing up is hard to do. But colorful.

“Grease” endures because the trials and tribulations of teen years are universal and unforgettable. Youthful exuberance, expressed in songs like “You’re the One That I Want,” is never out of date.

Back then, Jen told me she selected “Grease” for her senior students for the same reason she selected “Peter Pan” for her very first production.

“I like to see kids playing kids. Their own personal stories provide rich material for their roles. Ask a kid in high school to play Tennessee Williams and the best he or she could do is make a good stab at it. When kids play themselves, understanding their character allows them to go deep, loosen up, and perform, which is gratifying and comes across to the audience as honest.”

The more things change, the less they change. That quote still resonates today.

Back then, Jen also said she originally selected “Grease” because she thought it was “a fluffy romp the kids could have fun with and audiences would enjoy.” But the rehearsal process changed her mind.

“My cast helped me to see through the lyrics and the scenes to the truth: ‘Grease’ is about youthful struggles. Who am I? How do I fit in to the world? Some learn. Some don’t.”

Jen did eventually and not without considerable effort.

In an interview we did in 2002, Jen told me that the only thing that got her through high school was theater, however, her director was not a nice guy. The man  yelled. He threw chairs. On her college recommendation, he described her as “not very bright.” Nevertheless Jen got into Bennington College, where her fields of concentration were acting and playwrighting. The girl described as “not bright” became a class leader. After graduation, a job at a preschool in Seattle taught Jen that “at his or her core, every child is drama and play.” She followed her bliss to a very prestigious graduate program at the University of Victoria, where the legendary Juliana Saxton headed the discipline of drama education. Saxton took one student a year under her wing and there were only three other students in the course.

“For two years, I lived in total isolation, reading and researching. Instead of feeling alienated as I did in high school, I was in bliss.”

As are the parents whose children were fortunate enough to enter Jen’s very special world of Young People’s Theater, a program Sheridan Arts Foundation director Ronnie Palamar had the vision to promote to her board.

But success did not come overnight.

Locals were skeptical about the need for one more theatre program for young people. A small group of boys and girls, about 16 kids, followed Jen tentatively at first, then flying high from their beginning acting experiences in “Peter Pan,” they went on to perform in her other productions – “Charlotte’s Web,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Anything Goes”  – slowly, but surely, drawing friends on to the stage with them. One minute it wasn’t , then suddenly acting became cool, even for jocks, who joined the T-Birds gang, the cool guys in black leather jackets in the original local cast of “Grease.” Today, more than 200 students, ages 3-18, take part in Jen Julia’s programs, including classes and workshops at the historic Sheridan Opera House.

“‘You’re the One That I Want’ is about how theater brings people together,” explains Jen.“When you spend that many hours creating something as a team, you can’t help being a family, no matter how different you may be. I wanted this play to celebrate the soul of the Young People’s Theater — that it is inclusive and prioritizes personal growth, love and respect among cast members.” 

With a wink to Rizzo, there are worse things you could do.

Prior to every performance, a slideshow highlights the 45 plays Jen’s Young People’s Theatre has performed since 1999. Friday night’s show (January 31) will be a special alumni night, inviting all Young People’s Theatre graduates to come see the play followed by an after-party and some “surprises in store,” according to Jen.

“You’re the One that I Want: The High School Grease Experience,” plays January 31, February 1 & February 3 (taking a break on Super Bowl Sunday), 6 p.m. each night, at the historic Sheridan Opera House, 110 North Oak Street.

Tickets are $15 for adults; $12 for kids 12 and under. Lap kids are free. Tickets are for reserved seating, and are available on the Sheridan Opera House website:

To learn more from Jen, click the “play” button and listen to our chat.


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