Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008
In the beginning, there was Sha Na Na, which did perform at Woodstock (1969) in the minutes before Jimi Hendrix took the stage. And Sha Na Na begat Grease (1972) and Grease begat American Graffiti (1973) and American Graffiti begat Happy Days (1974). And this was known as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival.
I was a huge Sha Na Na fan. And I played my original Broadway cast album of Grease until it had grooves in the grooves. I scraped up my babysitting money and went to see Grease, which, like Pippin, helped convince me that enjoying the cast album was no guarantee that I would enjoy the show. All the wonderful music was there (how much do I LOVE the score of Grease??) but the show was mean-spirited and raunchy. Patricia Birch’s award-winning choreography consisted of two hours of dancers dry-humping all over the stage. By the end I felt I would scream if I saw one more guy doing pelvic thrusts or girl spreading her legs wide enough to admit the QEII...Get a room, already! And I was a lusty 15-year-old then.
A funny thing happened to Grease on the way to the Theater Barn in 2008. It turned into a “fun family musical.” Huh?? Loyal as I am to my tattered 1972 OBC LP (I don’t own an audio or video recording of the 1978 film which contained DISCO MUSIC for God’s sake!) I hadn’t really focused on the bowdlerizing of Grease over the intervening decades. The process started with the film because there were many, many words in the original script that the censors simply wouldn’t allow in a PG movie. The film was so popular (and even I firmly believe that John Travolta was born to play Danny Zuko) that subsequent stage revivals have included some or all of that abhorrent disco garbage* as well as a significantly sanitized script. The end result is that what is playing now on Broadway and at the Theater Barn is not Grease but Potsie and Fonzie Go to Rydell High.
You would think that that would make me happy. Gee, Gail, now you can hear all the great music without the pelvic thrusting, right? Wrong. The pelvic thrusting is still there, although the girls do now keep their legs together, but the show has lost its punch. These were urban working class adolescents struggling to grow up in times that solidly rejected their life-style. The Burger Palace Boys and The Pink Ladies were gang members who swore, smoked, drank, and engaged in pre-marital sex. They were Greasers – the bad boys and girls who your mother warned you not to hang out with. They were also the kids next door – just as insecure and terrified of adulthood as Gidget or Annette (who weren’t as squeaky clean as we now think of them either.)
The Theater Barn is very good at finding really talented young performers, which is just what you need to do Grease right, but director Artie D’Alessio has put his talented performers in the wrong roles and cast a couple of clinkers as well, the most obvious of which is Michael Borges as Danny. Borges is trying to be John Travolta, who he’s not, and he ends up barely being Danny Zuko. This is a pity because he is playing opposite 17-year-old Brittany Boivin as Sandy. Boivin is remarkably beautiful and a strong singer with many legit roles already under her belt (she’s played Liesl in The Sound of Music, Cosette in Les Miserables, and Anne Dindon in La Cage Aux Folles), but she is young and has a ways to go as an actress. Paired with a stronger actor, her Sandy could really have been something special, but Borges plays only the mean, rough side of Danny and gives him no empathy or compassion at all. You just want to tell that sweet young girl to run, and run fast, back to the nuns at Immaculata!
In stark contrast to Borges, Wade Elkins cannot quite locate his inner scumball to play Kenickie with conviction. I thought that it might help that he looks like Eddie Haskell (actor Ken Osmond) who certainly embodies ‘50’s style sleaziness for many people, but it didn’t. Elkins tries to sneer and snarl, but his pelvic thrusting is half-hearted and I never bought him as the bad boy. He had a lot of fun with his solo on Greased Lighting though, and in this cute sanitized Grease Kenickie** actually IS singing about his car, not what he hopes will happen in its back seat!
Allie Schauer is an interesting Rizzo, soloing nicely on Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee and There Are Worse Things I Could Do. Here’s a gal who was born to chew gum and wiggle her butt! Rizzo is the character it is impossible to clean up and so Schauer reminded that I was seeing Grease not Happy Days: A New Musical (which is actually coming to Proctor’s in February – Lord help us!)
As Doody, Rick Desloge soars on his Act I solo Magic Changes, (one of my very favorite songs in the score) but, as he did in Forever Plaid, he vocally overpowers his castmates at every opportunity during the ensemble numbers. This is particularly unsettling in do wop music were the soloist is sings the actual lyrics and the chorus sings nonsense syllables. No one came to hear Ooooo and Ahhhh and Shooby-doo, but that’s what Desloge is busy belting out.
Dave Adamick falls into the same trap every so often as Roger aka Rump – it doesn’t help that he gets to duet with Desloge on Rock and Roll Party Queen. Again, this is a guy with a great voice, it’s just that there are times to belt and times to blend. I thoroughly enjoyed his solo on Mooning, another one of my favorite tunes from the show – even if it is a song about indecent exposure.
Suzanna Fox is adorable as Jan, and she sneaks in a few opportunities to show that she can do more than just blend too, but in appropriate ways and places.
K.C. Leiber just didn’t seem right as Frenchy. Too old? Too wholesome? This is a girl who has dropped out of both public high school AND “beauty school.” The Teen Angel sums up her level of taste and skill in cosmetology neatly when he sings “No customer would go to you unless she was a hooker.” And this is who Sandy calls to help “transform” her into a Pink Lady? Oy!
Ashley Blasland, whose performances I have really enjoyed at the Theater Barn in Urinetown and Violet, is miscast as the perky but snarky Patty Simcox. Blasland is overly made-up and does nothing but mug and whine.
Rachel Goldrick was delightful as the preternaturally mature Marty, and she does a fine job on her solo Freddy My Love. Another expert butt-wiggler, Goldrick’s performance is ably assisted to the heights of hilarity by Hernando Umaña’s constant oogling. He seems completely mesmerized by her ass, his head following its every move. She is about as far out of his league as that Chevy Impala he wants, but a guy can dream, can’t he, and Umaña makes it very clear what Sonny is dreaming about. I had forgotten that there WAS a character named Sonny in Grease (he doesn’t have any solos) but Umaña’s performance has ensured that I won’t forget again.
How much fun is Allen Phelps having as Johnny Casino? Too much! This is one of the perks when your family runs a theatre, you get to pop in and play a really fun part from time to time. It is always good to see Phelps on stage, especially this summer which has been such a landmark one for his family.
I feel like I’ve been hovering around 1960 musically all summer long – what with Hairspray (set in 1962), Forever Plaid (The Plaids were killed in 1962), Beehive (encompassing the entire decade of the 1960’s), and now Grease (set in 1959). Possibly because of the popularity of Hairspray Elyse and Leah Miller have eschewed the bouffant look for the Pink Ladies. Boivin sports a truly fabulous 1950’s ponytail (all her own gorgeous honey-blonde hair too) and Shauer wears what I believe was called an Italian poodle cut. It is very becoming on her. So what was with Blasland’s Little Sally braids when her hair was long enough for a real bobby-sockser pony tail? None of the guys sported a real D.A. (stands for Duck’s Ass) but Umaña’s hair did something similar in front.
What was with the vinyl jackets? Leather is hot, heavy, and expensive, so pleather, while noisy, is preferable on stage, but these jackets were high-gloss black vinyl – as shiny and reflective as those patent leather shoes the nuns wouldn’t let Sandy wear. And why didn’t any of them say “Pink Ladies” or “Burger Palace Boys” on them? I suppose this, like the canvas jacket Henry Winkler was forced to wear during his first season as The Fonz, was supposed to minimize the fact that these teens are gang members.
Abe Phelps’ set is lackluster (I know 1950’s high schools were ugly, but really!) except for little ol’ Greased Lightning, which is a cute pint-sized jalopy with a snappy paint job. At larger venues the car is actually a souped-up golf cart that can be driven around the stage. This Greased Lighting is in a perpetual state of paralysis and has to be pushed or carried, but it is effective nonetheless.
So I suppose this is a decent production of what is apparently masquerading as Grease these days. I think it is a mistake to cut All Choked Up whose lyrics actually bring Sandy and Danny’s relationship to a satisfactory conclusion (despite her new slutty look, Sandy only accepts Danny’s ring with the stipulation that there are no sexual string attached) instead of leaving them dancing around claiming that they want each other. And obviously I considered the original version of Grease a little too raunchy for my personal tastes, but it was a cohesive work of art, a piece of musical theatre that was true to itself in its use of profanity. Cleaning it up feels a little like painting loincloths on all the nudes in the Met...
(You think I'm obsessed with Grease? Give Scott Miller's analysis a read!)
Grease runs through August 31 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
*Magic Changes, Freddy My Love, Alone at the Drive In Movie, Raining on Prom Night and the original finale All Choked Up were not performed in the film, although some of them were heard as background music in various scenes. Grease (is the Word), Sandy, Hopelessly Devoted to You, and You’re the One That I Want were written specifically for the film score. The latter two film numbers are performed at the Theater Barn, as are all of the original stage numbers except for All Choked Up.
**Greased Lightning is Kenickie’s big number in the stage version. John Travolta used his star clout to take it away from Jeff Conaway in the film. Conaway was the understudy for all the male roles when Grease opened on Broadway in 1972, and he eventually took over the role of Danny, while Travolta only made it as far up the ranks of the Burger Palace Boys as Doody on stage.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008