It is consoling that a critic has the opportunity to argue as well as point out that a show’s long-standing success or renewable popularity doesn’t necessarily determine its value or quality. To the delight of the general public, however, some shows simply defy critical oversight. If they didn’t, “Grease” would probably not have survived to any significant degree for the past 35 years.
Despite my continuing indifference (just this side of disdain) for this persistently insipid ’50s rock ‘n’ roll musical the renewed and refreshed revival, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, is probably about as good as it is ever going to get. And I rather enjoyed some of it. This is not to imply that Tony Award-winner (“The Pajama Game” revival) Marshall has done anything notably innovative or adventurous with this show to merit our eternal gratitude.
Outside of the attention drawn to the show by its nationally televised auditions, one wonders why it is back on Broadway so soon. 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. This, mostly by right of its original record-breaking Broadway run (February 14, 1972, to April 13, 1980) of 3,388 performances, a record that would stand until it was overtaken by “A Chorus Line” the same year.
A Broadway revival of the show in 1994 featuring the then ubiquitous Rosie O’Donnell was also a success, playing longer (1,503 performances) than any revival up to that time. This ostensible homage to teens in heat (a far cry from “Spring Awakening”) also spawned a highly successful film version that starred John Travolta, Olivia Newton John, and Stockard Channing, all of whom were close to twice the age of the characters they played.
The best of the enhancements to this exuberantly danced staging is the addition of songs from the film version — a great idea. Aside from the mind-numbing text, basically little more than lead-ins to the musical numbers, there is the saving grace of the tuneful score. The songs from the film score that are strategically integrated include “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 typical high school teenagers during the Eisenhower years. I guess that means that all anyone has on his or her mind is singing, dancing, hot rods, and sex. So what else is new? It is not the familiar plot, in which Ryder High’s various girl and boy gangs hang out in cliques making crude, rude, and 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. The authors certainly had their audience pegged. It was a time before racial lines were crossed, a time when the only mix was between the hoods and the nerds, the jocks and the jerks, the sluts and the snobs.
The basic tastelessness of the show seems to have been toned down in favor of a more concerted effort to keep the bouncy 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 the engaging performers seem to be giving their all to the cause despite the fact that too many look too old for their roles. A minimum of self-mockery in the performances is a plus. Even Susan Blommaert, as Miss Lynch the no-nonsense teacher, offers clues that a human being resides somewhere in the halls of Rydell High.
The two principals, winners of the highly publicized TV show contest, “Grease: You’re The One That I Want,” in which performers from across the country tried out for the lead roles of Danny and Sandy, fill the bill nicely without setting the stage ablaze. The production team, after all, was not casting for the next Mimi and Rudolfo. Laura Osnes, who is making her Broadway debut at 21, plays the virginal Sandy, who learns how to be popular in her first year at Ryder High by joining the Pink Ladies, learning to smoke, having her ears pierced (make that one ear), and getting her heart broken a couple of times (reflected in such endearing treacle as “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “It’s Raining on Prom Night”). Osnes is pretty, pert, and perky, sings well, and offers proof that a summertime romance with Danny Zuko (Max Crumm) has its ups and downs when the school term begins.
Crumm, a Los Angeles native, is also making his Broadway debut as greaser Danny, the leader of the gang that call themselves T-Birds. He dances with the spirit of a cool teen and keeps up admirably with the more noticeably dynamic dancing of the ensemble, and his voice isn’t bad either. Jenny Powers has a harder time carrying off the blase Rizzo’s sexily insinuated shenanigans but is redeemed with her amusing take on “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” and with a nicely emotionalized “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” We are certainly as relieved as she is when she announces that her menstrual cycle is back on track.
Standout among the T-Birds is Matthew Saldivar, as the tough-talking Kenickie, who revs up his hot rod with “Greased Lightnin.’” In this, one of the cleverest numbers, Kenickie’s grey old heap of junk is transformed into a shiny red Thunderbird convertible. Also fine are Jeb Brown, as prom emcee Vince, who leads the company in a rousing “Born to Hand-Jive” and Jamison Scott as the nerd Eugene. The Pink Ladies, as played with individuality run amok by Allison Fischer, Robyn Hurder, Kirsten Wyatt, and Lindsay Mendez, deliver most of the musical’s brainless blathering with skill and determination.
Daniel Everidge and Mendez are appealing as the “Mooning” pudgy lovers. Ryan Patrick Binder has a fine musical moment when he makes the most of those “Magic Changes” with his guitar. There are laughs generated by “Beauty School Dropout,” in which Frenchie (Kirsten Wyatt) and a comely, bleached blonde male teen angel (Steven Buntrock) partake in a fantasy amid a bevy of celestial beauticians with their hair in rollers.
“Grease” happens within designer Derek McLane’s colorful yet slightly cheesy-looking settings that whimsically evoke such notorious meeting places as the school gym, a burger palace, a drive-in, lunchroom, a bedroom, and street corners. Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz gives plenty of color and flair to the crinoline-supported dresses, carried to its most ludicrous extreme by Natalie Hill, as Kenickie’s prom date Cha Cha.
By the time “Grease” gets to the rousing prom night dance, you will most likely have to admit that there are probably worse things that you can do than get “Shakin’ at the High School Hop.” A highlight is the band that is perched high above the set and conducted by a vivacious, curvaceous, and demonstrably involved conductor Kimberly Grigsby. HH
“Grease,” Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th Street. $71.50 to $121.50. 212-307-4100