If the 30 or so most popular musicals, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s Grease is the most changeable. Older shows, like Anything Goes, will shuffle around songs, replacing dated numbers with hits from Cole Porter’s other shows. And Damn Yankees comes with two different endings. But various productions of Grease have modified its song lyrics, scrubbed up its characters, and undergone several shifts of plotting and tone. Partly it’s the influence of director Randall Kleiser’s ubiquitous 1978 film adaptation with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, which introduced name changes and some new songs.
Mostly, however, it is the different ways we view rock’n’roll over four decades. It used to be, in Tom Robinson’s words, “nasty, crude, rebellious people’s music.” Not only has rock been a national idiom for a long time, but the sounds from its first years have become positively quaint. The Jacobs-Casey songs “Freddy, My Love” and “We Go Together” have become so familiar, it’s tempting to think they were original hits instead of spoofs.
When Grease premiered in a scruffy Chicago theater in 1971, the setting of the action at Rydell High School (based on Taft High School where Jacobs had taught) was 12 years in the past. In the intervening years, rock first appeared to fade, came back thunderously with the British Invasion and then moved upscale aesthetically and socially.
Grease is neither a memory musical nor is it nostalgic. It is not autobiographical, and no character speaks for the creators. The working-class ethnic teens who embraced rock in the first generation were seen as faintly ridiculous from the get-go, not threatening juvenile delinquents but charmers.
Reviving Grease this summer has special resonance for Cortland Repertory Theatre because its first season 41 years ago was launched with, yes, an earlier version of the same show. Brand-new then and still thought of as irreverent, producing it was a gutsy step as well as an area premiere.
To give the 2012 show an appropriate gloss, Cortland Rep’s producing artistic director Kerby Thompson has brought in some of his strongest people to stage, starting with eight-year veteran director Bert Bernardi, fondly remembered for last summer’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and 2007’s The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Fast pace and physical wit are his hallmarks. Joining him is choreographer Cynthia Halpin, also with Dreamcoat last year and Brigadoon in 2010. Grease may not have been conceived as a Broadway musical, but under Bernardi and Halpin’s hands, it behaves like one.
Halpin’s shaping of the big production numbers, “We Go Together,” “Shakin’ at the High School Hop” and “Born to Hand Jive,” are some of the prime attractions of this show. Along with their Broadway gloss are echoes of once-forbidden 1950s dance numbers that led parents to demand more censorious chaperones.
The cast, however, is dominated by new faces, some of them performing interns, which is most fitting in a show about high school kids. There are some notable exceptions. Longtime costumer Jimmy Johansmeyer turns up in one of his sheeny, narrow-lapelled suits as sock-hop TV host Vince Fontaine, representing those aging crooners who somehow adapted to early rock.
Returning also is slender, dark Rin Allen as Betty Rizzo, the boss lady of the Pink Ladies. Allen received a Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) nomination for her Velma in last summer’s much-admired Chicago. Visually, Allen always dominates the pack, and her range extends from the saucy, sarcastic “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” to the bitterly ironic “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” a contemplation of unexpected pregnancy, and the darkest number of the show.
Elsewhere, new faces equal fresh faces. Despite one greaser’s duck’s-ass haircut, some open-mouthed gum-chewing and a few flipped birds, both the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies could as easily be pals of Richie Cunningham as of Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli. No one is going to complain about seeing attractive, well-trained young people, except that none of them is, well, greasy. Maybe Brylcreem is no longer for sale.
As a fittingly cocky and swaggering Danny Zuko, Dylan Schwartz-Wallach is all bluster at his entrance and early numbers, but he’s too cool (or is intimidated?) to acknowledge his attraction to the sweet blonde innocent, Sandy Dumbrowski (Tess Polacheck), who has just transferred into Rydell. The other talent demanded of the role of Danny is, of course, dance, in which Schwartz-Wallach also makes his presence strong. Yet his biggest singing number, “Alone at a Drive-In Movie,” draws on his soulfulness.
Polacheck is a recent graduate of the Syracuse University Musical Theater program, where her only main stage appearance in four years was a non-singing role in The Miracle Worker. The song that describes her Cortland Rep performance could be from Sweet Charity: “If They Could See Me Now.” At her entrance Polacheck’s Sandy could be a princess out of a fairy tale: A snowflake wouldn’t melt on her cheek. Her heated delivery, appropriately, signals the transition to come, especially the duet with Danny, “Summer Nights.” The hotsy black costume she fills in the final scene calls for all of Johansmeyer’s most provocative legerdemain.
Danny’s sidekick Kenickie (Ryan Shaefer), the most dangerous-looking Burger Palace Boy, is also Rizzo’s putative love interest. His first-act number, “Greased Lightnin’,” backed up by the Burger Palace Boys, captures some of the edginess of earlier versions.
Pink Ladies who command attention are the spunky brunette Marty (Abigail Gatlin), who wails a lament for Freddy, and the talkative but insecure Frenchy (Alexa Shanahan). Frenchy’s comic number, “Beauty School Dropout,” is the best-produced song in the show, complete with male and female choruses dressed as a “choir.” Answering her prayer is the white-clad Teen Angel, who by convention is a surprise celebrity not named in the program. Svelte Abby Sheridan makes a remarkably trim Jan, the munchie-chomper.
Among the individualized Burger Palace Boys are the nave Doodie (Alexander Hulett), who can barely handle a guitar but whose shyness wins the girls. Others are practical jokers like Sonny (Chris Collins) and the in-your-face Roger (Coleman Hemsath), who celebrates his idea of fun with “Mooning,” a duet with Jan.
Three outsiders at Rydell are each running against the stream. Sexy interloper Cha-Cha DiGregorio (Maria Cristina Slye) almost provokes gang warfare by straying from her turf, and WASP-y joiner Patty Simcox (Avery Epstein) makes you want to hate school spirit, a useful dramatic ploy. But Parker Slaybaugh takes the pompous nerd Eugene Florczyk in an entirely new direction. For the first time in any production, Eugene is a figure of enormous empathy and a scene-stealer, like Charlie Chaplin merged with Gene Kelly.
Music director Logan Culwell leads an ensemble of five, always heavy with the beat, but never drowning out the principals. We don’t see them as they must be behind scenic designer Jason Bolen’s period set, decorated with the extended radio dial of a 1950s-era car dashboard.
Cortland Repertory’s Grease is the Fifties as we would have liked it to be. It’s like revisiting adolescence without algebra or acne.
This production runs through July 7. See Times Table for information.