When it debuted at the off-Broadway Eden Theatre in New York City in 1972, Grease was a raunchy, vulgar "little" musical that shined a light on an inner-city high school where there was conflict between the working class students and the preppy kids. But by the time it hit Broadway and subsequently the silver screen, the language had been scrubbed, the energy level amped up so high as to obscure some of the rawer messages (bullying, teenage pregnancy, gang violence, changing one's identity to "fit in") to make it more palatable for general audiences.
That said, the rousing production now onstage at the Paper Mill Playhouse continues to emphasize the themes of love, friendship, teenage rebellion and sexual exploration during adolescence. Music that recreates the sounds of early 1950's rock and roll transports us to 1959 Rydell High School (originally in Chicago) to hang out with the Burger Palace Boys and their Pink Ladies and witness the post-summer romance between greaser Danny Zuko and the prim and proper new-girl-on-campus, Sandy Dumbrowski (right, the dance in the gym, with Danny Zuko and Sandy Dombrowski in front; photo by Matthew Murphy).
Theatergoers familiar only with the John Travolta-Olivia Newton-John film of the late seventies, may be disappointed with a setting that is decidedly not California, although several of the movie's songs ("Grease [is the word]," “You’re the One That I Want” and "Hopelessly Devoted to You") have been added. Without the Hollywood glitz, however, the story focuses on and satirizes conflicts so prevalent in high schools of the decade: the greasers vs. the nerds, the need for “wheels” to impress the girls and what a new student has to do to be accepted.
Director Daniel Goldstein has assembled a cast stellar in both talent and looks, instantly believable as teenagers of the period. The Burger Palace Boys, led by Bobby Conte Thornton as Danny Zuko and Shane Donovan (center) as his sidekick Kenickie, become the greasers they portray as they swivel their hips, sing falsetto (à la the fifties’ rock ‘n’ roll guy groups) and dance with great energy and enthusiasm. Their rendition of “Greased Lightnin’”—complete with a red convertible (above)—brings down the house.
Their female counterparts, the Pink Ladies, led by Morgan Weed as tough Betty Rizzo and Dana Steingold (right center) as Frenchy, are appropriately coarse, bitchy and contemptuous of prissy and refined students personified by Sandy Dumbrowski and smug baton twirler Patty Simcox. Weed is terrific as Rizzo, whether toughly mocking Sandra Dee or wistfully explaining her promiscuity in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Steingold is very funny as a “Beauty School Dropout,” where she is accompanied by a fine-voiced Teen Angel (Telly Leung, center top in photo to right) and a quartet of Pink Ladies dressed in beauty salon smocks and hair roller helmets.
The more mainstream characters had a harder time of evoking the audience’s sympathy, for their roles are less interesting than the rebellious greasers. Eloise Kropp's Patty Simcox is an obnoxious “brown-noser.” As blonde, blue-eyed Sandy Dombrowski, Taylor Louderman (right, with Thornton as Zuko) sings with a lovely voice, but her character is so bland as to almost fade into the background through most of the play. The fault is in the writing, however, not the actress. When she comes out of her shell and dresses like a sexy Pink Lady at the end, Louderman lights up the stage.
Fine support is provided by Donna English as Miss Lynch, the no-nonsense spinster teacher everyone remembers but would like to forget; Leela Rothenberg and Tess Soltau as the muncher Jan and brassy Marty, respectively; and, as greasers, Robin De Jesus as Doody, Matt Wood, as Roger (he gets to sing a really funny song about mooning) and Tommy Bracco as Sonny La Tierri. Kat Nejat is a Latin firecracker as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, and Joey Sorge as Vince Fontaine conveys the smooth smarminess of a radio dee-jay barely out of high school himself! And as Eugene, Sean Patrick Doyle is the quintessential nerd; he may look awkward, but boy, can he dance!
The other star of the production is scenic designer Derek McLane, who has fashioned a fabulous set of bubblegum pink, black, aqua, checkerboard patterns and stainless steel so prominent in the burger joints and drive-ins of the era. Two “drops” remind us of such high school icons as the yearbook and athletic banners; another elicits memories of Big Boy Burgers, Whistle Soda Pop, Elsie the Cow and Texaco. Framed by lighted arches reminiscent of a juke box, the production is a visual knock-out!
Director Goldstein's nonstop pace keeps the audience from noticing some of the troubling subjects I mentioned earlier. Thomas Charles LeGalley's colorful costumes, Leah J. Loukas's wigs, and Joann M. Hunters energetic choreography complete the period picture.
The original production of Grease ran on Broadway for 3,358 performances, launched many Hollywood careers, spawned a movie version (released twice) and a sequel, and has become a cultural icon of its own. Since its première in a Chicago barn, the play has been performed the world over, and a PG-13 version has become a staple of high school drama clubs and community theaters. Its reputation is well-earned, for Grease provides great fun, great nostalgia and a great evening of musical theater, especially when performed as well as Paper Mill Playhouse does it. It’s a treat for the whole family, but be aware that some of the language, physical movement (suggestive hip thrusting) and themes are a bit coarse for the little ones (and over their heads).
Grease will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through June 29. For performance information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit online at www.PaperMill.org.
Photos by Jerry Dalia.