By Ruth Ross
Most local theatergoers are more familiar with the cinematic version of Grease, starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta and set in sunny Southern California, than with the original raunchy, “vulgar” little musical of the "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 that debuted off-Broadway in 1972, or the Broadway version, where the language had been scrubbed and some of the rawer messages (bullying, teenage pregnancy, gang violence, changing one's identity to "fit in") obscured to make it more palatable for general audiences.
The rather pallid, disappointing production now at the Chatham Community 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 ‘n’ roll transports us to 1959 Rydell High School to hang out with the Burger Palace Boys and their Pink Ladies and witness the post-summer romance between greaser Danny Zuko and prim and proper new-girl-on-campus, Sandy Dumbrowski, while satirizing 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.
So why was I disappointed? Well, Director/Musical Director James Mosser is a Rising Star-nominated director at Union High School, as is Choreographer Jennifer Williams, and most of the cast either graduated from or participate in the school’s drama program. That said, the main problem involve sound. None of the actors are miked, nor do they project very well, so when they are positioned downstage (in the back), it was very difficult for the people in the center section to hear them; when they move upstage, those sitting in the two side sections have trouble. In addition, allowing the actors to wait after delivering a musical number until the audience applause dies down results in a plodding pace in direct contrast to the peppy rhythms of the music. It’s not a concert, but a play with music, so stopping the action so many times disrupts the theatrical unity.
Alisa Carbonell’s overly-perky, brown-nosing, smug baton-twirling Patty Simcox can always be heard; sometimes her overbearing manner is extremely annoying. On the other hand, in the thankless role of Sandy Dombrowski, Grace Petersen tends to fade into the woodwork as she speaks softly, with little inflection, and just stands around, uncomfortable, much of the time. When she comes out of her shell and dresses like a sexy Pink Lady at the end, Peterson lights up the stage, but it’s too little payoff, too late.
In what should be the strong role of Pink Lady Betty Rizzo (left), Kylie Francis’s performance suffers, too, from a lack of projection and not enough coarse swagger, whether toughly mocking Sandra Dee or wistfully explaining her promiscuity in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” And the same is true for Taylor Eccles (left, center) as Frenchie; as the “Beauty School Dropout,” she should be funnier and ditzier to counteract Rizzo’s bitchiness. Leanne Marie Laurino (Jan) and Crystal Wright (Marty) stand out from the bunch; the former with her over-the-top appetite and the latter with her myriad of boyfriends.
Alexis Orallo (Cha-Cha DiGregorio) and Khadija Sankoh (Teen Angel) deserve kudos for their performances. As the teen’s nemesis, teacher Miss Lynch, Patricia Fallon appears stiff onstage; she recites dialogue, thus derailing what should be a natural and convincing performance.
The Burger Palace Boys, led by Richie Carchia as Danny Zuko and Ronan Ruste as his sidekick Kenickie (Above, center) fare little better. First of all, they look like a bunch of preppies wearing leather jackets, thus blunting the contrast between them and the nerds. Their hair is too neatly combed down, instead of a 1959 pompadour and duck tail. With his New Yawk accent, Cameron Brito (second from left) is better as Doody; he and the other Burger Spot boys have great fun praising “Greased Lightening.” Nico Vasquez’s Eugene Florczyk is appropriately nerdy, and as radio DJ Vince Fontaine, Scott Faranda is smarminess personified.
Production values were, on the whole, superior. Roy Pancirov and Bob Lukasik’s set design brings Rydell High School to life, and Cheryl Galante, Christina Kirk and Mike Patierno’s costumes transport us back to 1959. The lighting could be improved; at times, actors perform in the dark. And the singers are often overpowered by the musical accompaniment.
If I appear to be carping, I suppose I am. Chatham Community Players is noted for polished productions of musical theater (Pippin, Barnum, Cabaret, to name just a few), so this one left me wanting more. With two more weekends left, let’s hope the cast and crew up their A-game and give use “The One That [We] Want.” Their biographies and background indicate that they have the experience, so bring it on!
Grease will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, weekends through May 19. For information and tickets, call 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayhouse.org online.