Lightcap did not have to say it, but we can tell that most of this year’s cast (veteran Sally O’Herin as dowdy Miss Lynch excepted) were not born at the time of the original Talent Company production. Grease remains a young person’s show, even though it was written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey 41 years ago, spoofing the unsophisticated rock music of the pre-Beatles generation, 53 years ago.
Two related forces keep Grease young. One is that the whole thing is written to contain a succession of try-out numbers. Most of the major characters get a chance to shine in featured songs, often in duet. Jacobs and Casey based the different characters on their own high school students in Chicago. Because they are numbers that high school students can do, even if in a kind of moldy fig rock idiom, stripped-down, cleaned up (with Rizzo’s possibly pregnancy excised) versions of Grease pop up in parks and rec programs and musical summer schools. Not only does this create an audience to see a fully staged, uncensored production (like seeing Marty—played here by Jesse Pardee—of the Pink Ladies doing breast-perking exercises), but it also prepares cast members to know which characters to aim for when auditioning. Thus, the vast majority of the cast is making a Talent Company debut, but everyone you see and hear has a tight handle on the role he or she is taking.
That infusion of fresh blood is not the only force that renews Grease’s energy. Roy George leads a mighty, five-person ensemble, the Doo-Ops, with long wails from tenor saxophonist Dan Blumenthal. The music could have been written this month. Included in the score are two numbers added over the years, not seen in the original production, but in the 1978 movie version: Sandy’s second-act lament, “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” and “You’re the One That I Want,´ just before the finale.
Although Jacobs and Casey might have intended Grease to be an edgy satire, the move to Broadway meant that it developed into a raucous dance show. Shannon Tompkins’ choreography evokes memories of gymnasiums and VFW halls from those late Eisenhower years far more than anything given later by Bob Fosse, Gower Champion or Tommy Tune. It’s a high-energy, vernacular Americana that exported well to far corners of the earth, undermining repressive regimes. Tompkins assures the infectious joy of “Those Magic Changes,” with a solo by Doody (C.J. Roche), “Greased Lightnin’”, featuring Kenickie (James Gilroy), as well as the best-known number from the show, “We Go Together.”
Grease is not strong on plot, and even though no one enters the theater without knowing, director Forster does well in allowing it to generate some minimal tension. The leader of the Burger Palace Boys, Danny Zuko (Cole Tucker), met a fresh-faced, presumably innocent blonde, Sandy Dumbrowksi (Natalie Goldberg), and was smitten with her before the beginning of the action, but when they face each other again in the first act, he can’t own up to what he feels in front of his pals. This understandably puzzles Sandy, now a new girl at Rydell High. She tries to fit in with the dominant clique, the Pink Ladies, bossed by the haughty Betty Rizzo (Katie Weber). Tension over whether this breach can be healed may be slight, but Danny sounds genuinely filled with loss in his second-act number “All Alone in the Drive-In Movie.”
Both Tucker and Goldberg, Syracuse University students, rank among the best-ever leads in local productions of Grease. Tucker, an engineering student (!), has the requisite gobs of Brylcreem in his hair, and wields his comb with panache. Even though we all know Sandy’s Jekyll to Ms. Hyde transition is coming, her commitment to the split personalities is consuming. To quote Mae West, when she is good, she if very, very good, but when she is bad she is even better.
The always bad girl, Betty Rizzo (Katie Weber) ranks as a kind of second lead, not quite a bully but setting a note of snarling intimidation. Forster and Weber lead the character over the longest arc of anyone in the show. First is her sneering “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” (“rotten with virginity”), but later when her toughness is threatened by really being “in trouble” comes the heartfelt, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”
Some of the most winning numbers are unrelated to any plot line, such as the comic “Mooning” from Roger (Chip Weber) and the ever-munching Jan (Morgan Naum). Marty’s (Jesse Pardee) solo, “Freddy My Love,” gives us plaintiveness with glottal stops. Eddie Powers pops up in two important numbers: As the Buddy Holly look-alike Johnny Casino in the big dance number, “Born to Hand-Jive” and the falsetto-reaching, white-suited Teen Angel in “Beauty School Dropout,” the single most hilarious item in the show.
Then again, there is no shortage of comedy in any part of the show. When Kenickie needs a date from outside Rydell he shows up with the companion from hell, Cha-Cha DiGregorio (Kelsie Deyo), given to nose-picking and crotch-scratching. Her program mug shot reveals Ms. Deyo to be leading-lady attractive, but there’s never been a grosser Cha-Cha. The nerds of Rydell remind us of what fun there is in rejection for administration suck-up Eugene Florczyk (Cameron Vaccaro) and gung-ho student government cheerleader, Patty Simcox (Amanda Funiciello). We can tell what a terrific singing voice Funiciello brings, confirmed when she provides the Radio Voice with Sandy in “It’s Raining on Prom Night.”
Jeanette Reyner’s costumes roil with authenticity, like jeans with
rolled cuffs, and Cindy Schippers’ lighting cuts back and forth sharply
when lines are divided between the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink
Ladies. Stephen Beebe’s set retains the wall of tinsel for the dance
numbers. The Talent Company has also retained one of its best props, the
electric car evoking a period hot rod. And, yes, those fins are modeled
on a 1957 Chevrolet.
This production runs through Aug. 12. See Times Table for information.