Grease has become such a ubiquitous part of our popular culture that even people who have never seen it may feel like they have. And if you’ve never seen the play live on stage, Rockville Musical Theatre has mounted an outstanding new revival.
When Grease opened on Broadway in 1972, it became a surprise sleeper hit. Younger audiences related to the character’s youthful antics. And baby boomers enjoyed the nostalgic look back on their own fifties teenage years. The musical ran for eight years and was, at the time of its closing, the longest running show in Broadway history. In 1978, John Travolta starred in a hit film version, and the soundtrack sold in the millions. (Prior to stardom, Travolta had appeared in a touring company of the show, in a supporting role). The film included several new songs written by John Farrar, including “You’re The One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You.”
In the mid-1990s, low rent theatre impresarios Barry and Fran Weissler produced a successful Broadway revival. This “New Coke” version featured a series of C-list celebrities in the cast and integrated the popular Farrar songs from the film into the story.
Grease has now become a staple of high school and amateur theatre companies. Overexposure, along with a relaxing of societal mores have robbed the show of its edge, grit and danger. Today, Grease may come off to some like a PG-13 take on High School Musical. So how does Rockville Musical Theatre’s new production of this (now) classic story hold up?
Musical theatre purists (including this one) will be pleased to know that the Grease production performed by RMT is indeed the original seventies version. (Sorry, but you won’t be hearing “You’re The One That I Want” or “Hopelessly Devoted To You” here.) For the uninitiated (or, to coin a phrase, “Grease” virgins), Grease is the story of a group of rambunctious (and rather randy) high schoolers in 1959 suburban Illinois. The emphasis is firmly on romance, principally between “greaser” Danny Zuko and new student (and goody girl) Sandy. We follow Danny, Sandy and their peers as they wade their way through the volatile world of teen relationships and sexuality. Like all teens, they wrestle with issues of identity and fitting in. Danny grapples with ambivalence about his own lack of initiative, and joins his school’s running team. Sandy wonders what her goody-goody lifestyle has cost her in terms of friendships and fun.
RMT’s ‘Grease’ is, in a word, the word.
The tone here is mostly blue-collar edgy mixed with a heavy layer of 1950s nostalgia. And the teens’ unrelenting focus on sex and other misbehaviors is a welcomed antidote to the blander depictions of 1950s life we’ve seen in the past. (Think “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It To Beaver.”) Still, one can’t help but wish the writers had taken a few moments to explore the psychological motivations underlying these kids’ behavior. Is it peer pressure, secret insecurities, out of control hormones, a troubled family life or something else? The show provides no answers, and over time, the teens’ unrelenting boorishness begins to grate. The one exception is Rizzo’s song of defiance, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” When the girl drops her guard and reveals something honest about herself, the moment is electric. Had the writers found a way to include additional moments of poignancy like this, the show might have achieved a richer emotional texture.
Director Lee Michele Rosenthal keeps the pace up and the energy high. The production features a nice balance of group scenes and smaller, more intimate moments. In a play like this, the characters can easily melt together into an instinct mob. But Rosenthal brings out distinctive qualities in each teen, and they come alive as individual people.
Garrett Matthews is an appealing (if not particularly dangerous) Danny Zuko. He makes the character his own, without resorting to Travolta-ish imitation. As Sandy, Leslie Walbert has a fine voice and winning personality. Her forlorn take on “It’s Raining On Prom Night” evoked real pathos. One wishes the writers had given Sandy a little more drive and poise. The character is frequently in danger of being overshadowed by more colorful supporting characters.
Among them, stands outs include Rob Milanic as a nerdy teen and Valerie Hubert as a perky cheerleader. Kevin Belanger makes an ingratiating Buddy Holly-ish Doody, and provided welcomed comic relief. Ruth Orland’s Miss Lynch is appropriately imperious, and the brief moment when she cuts loose on the dance floor is pure fun. As Teen Angel, Chad Wheeler steals the show with his confident take on the always-memorable “Beauty School Dropout.”
Mark Hamberger’s set features a series of removable panels to cleverly (and efficiently) establish a wide range of colorful locations. Other highlights include a life-sized convertible (that drives) and a clever drive-in set (which included an actual projected film).
Choreography by Laurie Newton was strong, particular in the second act. Highlights include “Greased Lightnin’,” “Beauty School Dropout” and “We Go Together.”
Ginger Ager and Lee Michele Rosenthal outfit the cast with authentic fifties garb, and the hair curlers in the angels’ hair were an inspired choice.
I’ve seen Grease (play and movie) several times. (The most memorable production for me personally was the one that I saw many years ago at my mother’s old high school, years after she had passed away. She had been a student at that school in the 1950s. And watching the show was a surreal experience for me, to say the least.)
Whenever I see Grease, I’m often struck by a single nagging question: How do the authors want us, the audience, to feel about these kids and their choices? Is Grease a celebration of teen excess or a satirical condemnation of it? The major decisions made in act two by Frenchy, Danny and Sandy are arguably misguided, perhaps even self-destructive. Are we meant to embrace the characters rejection of 1950s authority (Danny) and conformity (Sandy)? Or is Grease in fact a conservative satire of teenage excess, a vicious expose of teens at their obnoxious worst?
But perhaps I’m a square who is reading too much into it. As for RMT’s production, the pieces fit together into a satisfying whole. This Grease features an energetic cast, memorable sets, a lively pace and a welcomed dose of fifties nostalgia. All in all, it was a pleasurable night in the theatre. RMT’s Grease is, in a word, the word.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission.
Advisory: These are some very misbehaving high schoolers. (See above.) Recommended for mature teens and older.
Grease plays through November 16, 2014 at Rockville Musical Theatre performing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre-603 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville, MD. For tickets, call (240) 314-8690, or purchase them online.