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Actors with Down syndrome bringing 'Grease' to the stage
By Eileen O. Daday | Daily Herald Correspondent

Allison Fogarty,19, Roselle, playing Sandy, sings "Summer Lovin'" as Down syndrome actors run thorough their lines for "Grease" at Gymkhana in Hanover Park.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Farzin Sharyari, 22, Hoffman Estates playing Vince Fontaine sings "Grease" as Down syndrome actors run thorough their lines for the musical "Grease" at Gymkhana in Hanover Park.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Actors, from left, Clark Raymond, 19, Elk Grove Village, Josh Foy, 18, Carpentersville and David Luplow, 19, South Elgin run thorough their lines for "Grease" at Gymkhana in Hanover Park.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 4/9/2009 11:30 AM

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Rehearsal for the musical, "Grease, the School Edition," started on Saturday with a rather unorthodox drill: Director Orion Couling led his teenage T-Birds in procession around the stage, encouraging them to strut - with attitude.

Wearing the new black leather jackets with "T-Birds" etched across the back, the actors followed Couling's every move, trying to incorporate his swagger.

"We're trying to be more like a gang," explains Couling, who fittingly looks something of a pied piper during the exercise.

For the second year, Couling returns to direct a popular musical that combines young actors with Down syndrome, with their nondisabled peers. Last year, they presented "Disney's High School Musical," and drew six sold out audiences.

Farzin Sharyari, 22, of Hoffman Estates made his singing and acting debut last year, and this year he landed the role of Vince Fontaine, the disc jockey who doubles as a narrator of sorts in this "Grease" version.

"He's like a good guy," explains Sharyari, who has Down syndrome. He works part-time at Harper College in Palatine. "He spins the records, and does all this singing and dancing."

Sharyari discovered his voice last year, and this year Couling gave him the chance to sing the show's opener, "Grease," as a solo, complete with choreography.

"Last year, he had this tiny part," Couling says, "and this year, he's singing the title song for the whole show. Pretty amazing."

Cast members rehearse twice a week at Gymkhana in Hanover Park, whose White Room Theatre partners with the Schaumburg-based UPS for DownS, a parent-directed organization for families and children with Down syndrome, to mount the show.

Ticket sales opened on Friday, and already two of its four shows have sold out. Seats remain available for the remaining shows.

In all, 47 young people are in the cast, of which 32 have Down syndrome. They come from throughout the suburban region in order to participate in the theater project that celebrates inclusion.

"Orion is so great with them," says Patty Raymond of Elk Grove Village, whose 19-year-old son, Clark, is appearing in his first play. "He expects a lot of them, and they seem to rise to the occasion."

The show's two leads, Allison Fogarty of Roselle as Sandy and Nick Balsitis of Romeoville as Danny, demonstrate the show's progressive mission.

Fogarty has Down syndrome, and wears a valve that covers her tracheotomy enabling her to speak and sing. Balsitis is appearing in only his second play, and in his first leading role.

"It's pretty amazing to watch Allison, given all that she's overcome," Couling says. "She's basically shy in person, but she's grown leaps and bounds in her confidence."

Appearing with them are actors who come from Addison, Barrington, Bartlett, Carpentersville, Elgin, Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Inverness, Palatine, Roselle, St. Charles, Schaumburg, South Elgin, Wheeling and Wood Dale.

One thing the young actors all share is their love of the classic "Grease" songs. In order to build on that, Couling has most of the ensemble singing every song.

"Summer Nights" comes early in the first act, and cast members love to sing the song made famous by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John - so much, Couling says, that it's downright boisterous. Much like the show.

If you go

"Grease, the School Edition," presented by Gymkhana and UPS for DownS, in Schaumburg

When: 7 p.m. April 17 and 18; 3 p.m. April 19, 25-26.

Where: Gymkhana's White Room Theater, 1700 Tower Road in Hanover Park.

Tickets: $10. Note: Tickets are sold out for all but the April 26th performance.

Details: (630) 483-0330.