From left: Tricia Fukuhara, Marisa Davila, Cheyenne Wells, and Ari Notartomaso star in “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.” (Paramount+)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Tricia Fukuhara wasn’t around in the 1950s, or even when the movie “Grease” came out in 1978, but she is bringing back the feel of that decade and that film as one of the stars of “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,” a prequel series on Paramount+.

Fukuhara plays Nancy Nakagawa, a founding member of the Pink Ladies, the female clique at Rydell High School. The series takes place in 1954, four years before the events of the movie. Also starring are Ari Notartomaso as Cynthia, Cheyenne Wells as Olivia, and Marisa Davila as Jane, older sister of Frenchy (played by Didi Conn in the movie).

The YouTube channel Lady Jenevia describes Nancy as having the “acerbic wit of a middle-aged woman” inside of a teenage body.

“Nancy is an eccentric creative who’s way ahead of her time,” Fukuhara says. “She’s a career-driven non-conformist with huge ambitions of moving to New York and becoming a famous fashion designer. She’s a powerhouse who is unapologetically herself.”

Although the story takes place almost 70 years ago, Fukuhara, a Southern California Yonsei, feels that today’s teens can relate to it. “I think it’s hard being a teenager no matter what year it is. These characters are going through so many of the same problems we’ve all had in high school, just in a different context of the world.

“I don’t know what it’s like to experience the aftermath of World War II, but I’ve definitely dealt with my share of racism, bullying, and misogyny, so that wasn’t super hard to tap into. But as far as being a Japanese American living in the 1950s, I interviewed anyone I could find with those experiences, and went to museums and panels to gain some first-hand insight on what that was like.”

Tricia Fukuhara (Photo by Timothy Fernandez)

The original, which starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John and was based on the stage musical of the same name, is known for such songs as “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want.” The 10-episode series has 30 original songs and 31 original dance numbers.

“There’s about three musical numbers in each episode, so there’s plenty of singing and dancing to be had,” notes Fukuhara, who performed as a child in regional theater productions of such musicals as “Annie,” “The King and I,” “South Pacific” and “Children of Eden”; directed and performed in a music video of a cappella from “La La Land” with Double Treble; and sang soprano in a barbershop chorus called Sirens of Gotham.

She adds, “There’s a musical number in the second episode where we get a peek into Nancy’s mind and ideals. You can also anticipate some big moments for her in the eighth and ninth episodes.”

Fukuhara is a longtime fan of the original “Grease,” which “has been in and out of my life since I was a child. I grew up watching the movie, and remember spraying my homework with perfume like Marty did in the sleepover scene. [Marty Maraschino, played by Dinah Manoff, was one of the Pink Ladies.] ‘We Go Together’ was one of the first songs I performed as a child, and I choreographed ‘Summer Nights’ when I was in high school.”

Fukuhara finds that reactions to the series have been mixed. “‘Grease’ has such a devoted following, so people have strong opinions either way. I’ve had people tell me how much they relate to Nancy, and how excited they are to see so much diversity on screen, and in the ‘Grease’ universe in particular. But I also know that that’s the exact issue a lot of people have with the show.

“Overall, I’m just honored that people who were fans of the original who never felt represented are finally able to feel seen and have their stories told years later.”

From left: Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso), Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara), Olivia (Cheyenne Wells) and Jane (Marisa Davila) are the main characters in “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.” (Paramount+)

Fukuhara recalls how she got the role: “I heard about it through several facets. The buzz was wild amongst my community! I had several people send me the notice about the open call, and my manager also pitched me for an audition. They were searching across the U.S. and Canada for their ensemble.

“The casting directors told me they watched every single tape for my role in particular, which is very exciting, and such an honor that somehow I get to be the one to embody her character.”

From the ages of 10 to 12, Fukuhara starred in three tours of “Dragon Tales Live,” traveling to South Korea and across the U.S. in venues such as Target Center in Minneapolis, Fox Theatre in Detroit, and Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. Based on the hit PBS show, “Dragon Tales Live” tells the story of 6-year-old Emmy, her 4-year-old brother Max, and their dragon friends. Fukuhara has played both Emmy and Max.

Theme park audiences may have seen her singing and dancing at Disneyland, leading the Frog Choir in “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” or performing as the first Asian American Cindy-Lou Who in “Grinchmas” at Universal Studios.

After graduating with honors from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Fukuhara originated the role of Soonja in “Comfort Women” — Dimo Hyun Jun Kim’s musical about Korean women who were sold as sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II — during its Off-Broadway run in New York.

She has a love for immersive/interactive theatre and has appeared in several productions in New York and L.A., including “Blackout: House” and “Somebody to Love.”

Her other screen credits include Nick Jr.’s “Noggin Knows,” “Queenpins,” “True Story with Ed and Randall,” “Warped!,” “Loot,” the Emmy-nominated web series “Only Children,” the award-winning short film “Dante Falls,” and the short film “What She Said,” which she co-wrote.

When Fukuhara isn’t performing, she enjoys Lindy-hopping, supporting local artists, and spending time with her cat, Lindy Kitty.

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