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Revisiting the past isn’t easy. Just ask the folks at the Olney Theatre Center. Olney has kicked off its 2002 season with a slo-mo production of the original Grease, which first graced Broadway stages in 1972—six years before the 1978 movie that anyone with cable television has seen a gazillion times.
The decision to strip away Hollywood’s add-ons and present the unvarnished stage version is both purist and well-intentioned. Chuck out “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want”—and the film version’s terminally slick Frankie Valli theme song. Bring on “Those Magic Changes” and “All Choked Up.” The result promises to be at once familiar and refreshing.
But just like “Greased Lightnin’”—the wreck of a car that chief Burger Palace Boy Kenickie (Drew Niles) soups up with nothing more than a song of that title—Grease needs speed to succeed. And Olney’s production of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s lighthearted ’50s-themed nostalgia trip prefers to stroll rather than hop or twist.
Even by the less-than-stringent standards of the American musical, Grease is woefully bereft of plot. In fact, you could argue convincingly that the play is more of a revue than a musical. There’s not much heft to any one of the multiple boy-meets-girl stories spun out like cotton candy to stick to the terrifically retro songs. Grease’s engine is its tunes, and any successful production has got to keep them revved up.
Unfortunately, Roberta Gasbarre’s direction often slows things down considerably—particularly during the show’s numerous segues between scenes. Thomas F. Donahue’s set—with its layers of ’50s-themed screens depicting the Wolfman and the Everly Brothers (among others)—doesn’t do enough to mask the comings and goings of those who are busy shifting things around, and the numerous madcap dashes contrived by Gasbarre to cover up the changes without using a blackout don’t really distract from their clumsiness.
But beyond that, there’s an overall languor to the production’s linking scenes of dialogue that dampens the fireworks you expect from Grease. Without the cloak of song and dance, the actors—with the notable exception of the charming Tammy Roberts, who throws herself headlong into the pratfalls and rah-rah of cheerleader Patty Simcox—often seem to be at a loss as to exactly what to do. The entire cast consistently tiptoes up to the show’s verbal gags—a hesitancy that contrasts unfavorably with the energy the players bring to Raquis Da’Juan Petree’s manic and elaborate choreography.
The scene that ends Act 1, in which the Pink Ladies and the Burger Palace Boys flirt and squabble, is the best instance of this unfortunate juxtaposition. Punctuated by three of the best songs in the show (“Mooning,” “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” and “We Go Together”), it’s the scene in which the relationships between the characters—slight as they are—become more complicated. Yet in the Olney production, the energy generated by the songs dissipates as soon as the applause dies down—even though the characters are throwing punches. By contrast, a longer and less interesting scene at the sock hop in the play’s second act—dominated by dancing and singing, and containing precious little dialogue—flies by more decisively.
Pace also matters because Grease’s broad ’70s sendup of ’50s innocence has fallen into a no man’s land of sorts in 2002. Roughly half of any given audience will get the Shelley Fabares gags and dumb-Catholic zingers about fish on Friday. Keeping the tempo up is the only way to whiz past the dated jokes and get to the music.
And Grease has a lot of songs that have stayed in tune over the years. “We Go Together” is as infectious as you remember it. “Beauty School Dropout” is as funny. Aside from the occasional bursts of static in Ron Ursano’s sound design (corrected early in the show on press night), Olney’s production does justice to the songs, even the minor ones. In particular, two of the musical’s throwaway pastiches of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll (“Those Magic Changes” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Party Queen”), sung with a distinctive smoothness by Ryan D. Keough (as Burger Palace Boy Doody), capture the whimsy that is the play’s strongest suit.
That the stage version of Grease plays as an ensemble piece is both good news and bad news for this production. The good news is that the decidedly uneven performances of the putative leads—Jon Paul Terrell (as tenderhearted tough guy Danny Zuko) and Jennifer Timberlake (as the shyly prim Sandy Dumbrowski)—don’t kick sand on the entire production. Terrell and Timberlake give the impression that they had their summer fling (celebrated famously in “Summer Nights”) on two different beaches, and their pivotal scene together—breaking up at the drive-in movies—lacks the requisite budding hormones and pathos.
The bad news, however, is that Tracy Lynn Olivera’s portrayal of Betty Rizzo is more fizzle than sizzle. Tough girl Rizzo, the leader of the Pink Ladies, is the play’s emotional center. She gets the best lines and the most boys. Olivera finds her best moment in Rizzo’s clever musical put-down of Sandy (“Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”), but in the rest of the play, she doesn’t manage to convey the hard-boiled cynicism that makes her character compelling. Rizzo’s reaction to a pregnancy scare (“There Are Worse Things I Could Do”) is the musical’s one dark moment, yet Olivera’s character never develops a hard enough shell to truly crack.
Other characters provide notable highlights, however. As Pink Lady Marty, Meaghan Kyle breathes considerable life into the crassly materialistic “Freddy, My Love.” Michael Sharp’s turn as the “Teen Angel” who talks cheerily oblivious Pink Lady Frenchy back to high school in “Beauty School Dropout” positively oozes insincerity. And the duet between Pink Lady Jan (Erin Graham) and Burger Palace Boy Roger (Brad Nacht) on the gooey and nonsensical “Mooning” is a delightful romp.
Alas, there aren’t enough such moments. Getting an audience to shake a tail feather takes a lot more energy than Olney offers. CP