ANAHEIM : Disabled Performers Gear Up for 'Grease'

Charlie Peter-Giorgi, 33, says he prefers singing to dancing, but one look at the way he shakes, twists and grooves to '50s tunes from the musical "Grease," and it's obvious that he's not suffering from two left feet.

"I can sing pretty good--like Elvis Presley," Peter-Giorgi said last week. "But dancing, you really got to concentrate, 'cause the ladies go this way and the guys have to go the other way."

Peter-Giorgi is part of a 24-member cast from the Anaheim Therapeutic Recreation Musical Theater Troupe, a company that will rock 'n' roll onstage Thursday as it performs the classic '50s-era play at the Savanna High School Auditorium.

At a rehearsal last week, men and women between the ages of 16 and 33 sang famed favorites like "Summer Love" and be-bopped away to "Greased Lightning." Some cast members were a little nervous, others obviously old pros.

Troupe members are all participants in a city-funded theater class for people with developmental disabilities, one of only a few such classes in Orange County.

Instructor Kristina Norum, a Newport Beach resident who recently moved to the county, said she was surprised to find so few theatrical opportunities for people with such forms of mental retardation as Down's syndrome.

"What I'm trying to do is provide them with a complete theater experience--dance, singing, drama, stage terminology," Norum said.

Some bugs remained to be ironed out at last week's rehearsal, as some cast members remained a little shaky when it came to remembering where to stand and had to be reminded to look at the audience. But for many, it was simply an expression of inexperience.

"It's the first time a lot of these guys have performed," Norum explained.

Some of the performers, however, are old hats and need little coaxing; others, like Amber Simko, 24, can't wait for Thursday to arrive. Even between scenes, Simko spent much of the rehearsal busily sock hopping in the background.

"I like to boogie," Simko said matter-of-factly.

Leslie Ross, 24, said the '50s music is good but nothing like today's music. "Rock 'n' roll is cool, like New Kids on the Block," she said. "He sings real good."

There's a lot of hand-holding and some tender moments in the musical, a romantic comedy about high school students and summer loves, but Ross said there's not much of that between the cast members. She said her partner, for example, is a "good dancer and a good friend but not a boyfriend."

After Thursday, the weekly class will shift into preparation for its next performance, a fall production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

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