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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

Grease, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343.

$30 to $62. Performances continue Wednesdays to Sundays through Sunday,

July 27.

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