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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 18, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `Grease’ at Paper Mill
Leave it to me to always argue with success. Despite
my long-standing indifference to the "New ’50s Rock ‘n Roll musical,’"
better known as "Grease," permit me to say that the renewed,
refreshed, and family-friendly (a number of four letter expletives
have been deleted) production at the Paper Mill, under the direction
of Mark Hoebee, is probably about as good as it’s going to get. And,
I rather enjoyed it. There is no denying that the Jim Jacobs and Warren
Casey musical found its way into the hearts of many, even as it made
its way into American musical theater history. Its original record-breaking
Broadway run, from February, 1972, to April, 1980, racked up 3,388
performances, a record that would stand until it was overtaken by
"A Chorus Line."
A Broadway revival in 1994 featuring the then-ubiquitous Rosie O’Donnell
was also a success playing longer (1,505 performances) than any revival
up to that time. This ostensible homage to teens also spawned a highly
successful film version that starred John Travolta, Olivia Newton
John, and Stockard Channing, all of who were close to twice the age
of the characters they played.
The best of the enhancements to this exuberantly danced staging (with
appropriately frenetic choreography by Jeffrey Amsden and Hoebee),
is the addition of songs from the film version, a great idea. Aside
from augmenting the script, which is basically little more than a
lead-in to the musical numbers, are such tuneful pastiches from the
film score as "Grease" (by Barry Gibb), "Sandy" (by
Scott Simon and Louis St. Louis), and "Hopelessly Devoted to You"
and "You’re the One That I Want" (by John Farrar).
The plot remains focused on the dating rituals of a group of high
school teenagers during the Eisenhower years. I guess that means that
all anyone has on his or her mind is singing, dancing, and sex. So
what else is new? It all happens within designer James Fouchard’s
colorful, art-deco influenced settings that minimally evoke such notorious
meeting places as the school gym, a burger palace, a drive-in, lunchroom,
a bedroom, and street corners.
Don’t worry. It’s not the familiar plot, in which Ryder
High’s "Greasers" and the school’s "Pink Ladies" hang
out in clicks making vulgar remarks to and about each other. They
are supposed to remind us of what boys and the girls had uppermost
on their minds in the 1950s, like making out, breaking up, and making
up. One would think (I am a 1956 graduate) that I would be a perfect
candidate for wallowing in 1959 nostalgia, yet the truth is that I
found 1959 a great year to escape the rock ‘n’ rolling mainland and
head to Hawaii for a four-year sabbatical.
The authors certainly have their audience pegged. The show’s hook
is a high school reunion followed by a flashback to a time before
racial lines were crossed, a time when the only mix was between the
hoods and the nerds, the sluts and the snobs.
The general tastelessness of the show seems to have been toned down
in favor of a more concerted effort to keep the pastiche songs and
energetic dances coming at us with breakneck speed. The songs may
be corny and trite, but they do have melody in their favor. The dances,
may be hokey, but an engaging company, all of whom seem genuinely
committed to the cliches, performs them well. A minimum of self-mockery
in the performances, even the exposure of a bare bottom, is a plus.
The principal players are terrific. Jennifer Hope Wills is pert and
perky as the virginal Sandy, who, in her appliqued pink poodle skirt,
learns how to be popular in her first year at Ryder High. She does
this by joining the "Pink Ladies," learning to smoke, having
her ears pierced, and getting her heart-broken a couple of times.
Musically this is reflected in such endearing treacle as "Hopelessly
Devoted to You" and "It’s Raining on Prom Night." A summertime
romance with delinquent leader of the "Burger Palace Boys"
gang, Danny Zuko (Andy Karl), has its up and downs when the school
term begins. Karl, whose agile body appears to be going up and down
at the same moment that it is going side to side, is the very model
of teen cool, and his voice isn’t bad either.
Leslie Kritzer, who received raves at the Paper Mill as Fannie Brice
in "Funny Girl," is funny once again, but this time as Rizzo,
the foul-mouthed leader of the "Pink Ladies." She earns our
respect for the show-stopping way that she sings "Look at Me,
I’m Sandra Dee," and "There Are Worse things I Could Do."
The other "Pink Ladies" — Jordan Ballard, Heather Jane
Rolff, and Sarah Stiles — are also diverting audience pleasers.
With his torso propelled by twitches and ticks, John Jeffrey Martin
revs up his hot-rod with "Greased Lightnin’," Benjie Randall
and Heather Jane Rolff are genuinely appealing as the "Mooning"
pudgy lovers, and Justin Bohon (who played Will Parker in the recent
Broadway revival of "Oklahoma") has a major musical moment
making those "Magic Changes."
But my favorite number has to be "Beauty School Dropout,"
in which Stiles, with Steven Bogard as a teen angel, croon among the
clouds amid a bevy of winged celestial-ettes.
By the time "Grease" got to that obligatory rousing prom night
dance, I was grown up enough to admit that "Shakin’ at the High
School Hop" could be both fun and funny.
— Simon Saltzman
$30 to $62. Performances continue Wednesdays to Sundays through Sunday,
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