Sunday, July 8, 2018

Review of "Grease"

Nowadays, every production of Grease feels it must pay homage to the 1978 film version, which happens to be celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer.  Granted, it is one of the most successful movie musicals of all time that also spawned numerous Top Ten hits from its multi-platinum soundtrack.  But the problem with going this route is the show can too easily feel like a parody of the film, full of schtick and two-dimensional characters.  Sadly, this is the direction the Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of Grease has taken.  The result is a leaden, underachieving show that never finds its buoyant, giddy footing.

The plot is a variation of boy meets girl, boys loses girl and, in the end, boy gets girl.   In this scenario, we are presented with two seemingly incongruent lovebirds--high school greaser Danny Zuko (Johnny Newcomb) and dewy-eyed co-ed Sandy Dombrowksi (Kimberly Immanuel).  Along the way, we meet members of his high-spirited gang, the Burger Palace Boys, and their female counterparts, the Pink Ladies.  They rock, they roll, get into assorted mischief and, finally, come together to celebrate their disarming rebelliousness.

The drawback of the production comes in both the way the performers interpret their roles, the substitution of numbers from the movie that don’t necessarily fit, and the way songs are presented.  For example, right at the onset, the innocuous “Grease is the Word,” a number one chart-topper from the movie, is used instead of “Alma Mater” and “Alma Mater (Parody)” from the original 1972 version.  The latter songs would have better prepared the audience for what is coming, or should be coming—a raucous, slightly naughty-filled show. “Those Magic Changes,” which should be more of a simple celebration by a young man beginning his mastery of the guitar, has become a goofy, jittery performed Elvis impersonation. 

The young cast, too often, comes across as caricatures overplaying their roles for easy laughs. Johnny Newcomb’s Danny Zuko is more Prom King than rough and tumble gang leader.  Kimberly Immanuel, who was so wonderful in Ivoryton’s production of The Fantasticks, plays it straight—properly so--as the trusting newcomer, Sandy Dombrowski.  While the less is more philosophy could be applied to the other actors, her transformation into a leather-clad swinger at the show’s conclusion could have been more over-the-top.

The score for Grease is still a gem with rollicking upbeat numbers such as “Greased Lightnin’” and “We Go Together,” superb comic numbers like “Mooning” and “Beauty School Dropout,” and plaintive odes to youth such as “Summer Nights” and “It’s Raining on Prom Night.”  And, yes, in addition to the opening number the big songs from the movie—“Hopelessly Devoted,” “Sandy,” and “You’re the One That I Want”—have been blended into the musical.

Director/Choreographer Todd L. Underwood has not been able to generate enough energy and good-natured bounciness that such a playful show requires.  There was too much gesticulating and undisciplined histrionics for the musical’s own good.  The dance numbers, however, were enthusiastic and lively, taking the spiritedness and brio of the performers to heart.  There were some technical issues with errant lighting and a slightly garbled sound mix.  Hopefully, with more performances under its belt these issues can be ironed out.

Grease, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 29th.

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