Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1998
Gee, it seemed like such a good idea. The young, energetic, talented company at the Theater Barn staging “Grease”. One of my pet peeves with “Grease” is watching a bunch of 30-somethings hop around pretending to be teenagers. There was a guarantee that wouldn’t happen at the Theater Barn, and there was every hope of seeing an exciting show.
Alas, this “Grease” is dead in the water – toodling down the road like a station wagon when it ought to move like, well, greased lightning. Yes, there is a lot of talent on the stage, but the female performers have been badly miscast, and the show never gets into high gear.
Remember, we are talking about the Broadway musical version of “Grease”, which is very much an ensemble piece, a showcase for young talent. Each character is clearly defined and has his or her own spotlight number. The show is not about Danny and Sandy, it is about “the whole gang.” It is also not a cutesy show. These teens are decidedly blue collar and raunchy. The language is coarse and their minds are fixated on sex.
“Grease” has become so much a part of late 20th century popular culture that it is worth taking a look back at its roots. In the early 1970’s there was a big ’50’s Revival. Actually, that was a misnomer because the young people who were leading this charge were barely old enough to remember the era they were so busy recreating. “Grease” opened on Broadway (after a successful off- Broadway run) in 1972 and was a precursor to “American Graffiti” (1973) and “Happy Days” (1974).
What has made and kept “Grease” so popular all these years is the terrific music and high energy dance numbers. Those of you who are only familiar with the film version will be pleasantly surprised at all the great music that was cut from the show when it made the transition from stage to screen. Songs like “Magic Changes”, “Mooning”, “Alone at a Drive-in Movie” and the first and second act finales, “We Go Together” and “All Choked Up”, are worth hearing and integral to the plot.
While many of the young cast at the Theater Barn are good singers who do their numbers credit, others simply don’t have the pipes to project over the minimal orchestra and their colleagues do-wop back up singing. It is unnerving to suddenly hear the bass line instead of the melody when you can see a performer standing front and center obviously singing their heart out to no avail.
Badly miscast as Sandy is Theresa Bruno, who really struggles to be heard in all of her numbers. When you can’t hear someone it is hard to get involved with them. When the female lead becomes an inconsequential annoyance, the show is in trouble. It’s too bad because Jeff Croteau is a terrific Danny. He has resisted doing a John Travolta impression and created a fully formed characterization of his own. The fact that he is easy on the eyes and can sing and dance up a storm doesn’t hurt either.
Gaelen Gilliland looks like she ought to be a good Rizzo, but she just misses the boat, even though she sings well and has the requiste wiggle in her walk. Jimmy Johansmeyer is mesmerizing as her other half, Kenickie, a real sleaze and the owner of Greased Lighting. If Johansmeyer hasn’t performed in a Charles Ludlam show someone ought to cast him quick. He projects an off-beat sexuality which is at once disturbing and hilarious.
The supporting females fare much better. Adrienne Aserita is delightful as Jan, and her sweet romance with Jonathan VanDyke as Roger, the Mooning King of Rydell High, seems much more real than that of Sandy and Danny. The young Kate Simses is hilarious as Frenchy, and her moment in a Pepto-Bismol pink wig while the Teen Angel (John Ayers) sings “Beauty School Drop-Out” is touching. Maria Vee is a hoot as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, the Catholic blind-date from hell who wins the dance contest with Danny. An older actress with good stage presence, Vee steals the show from the younger, less self assured actresses.
The major question of the production is why the attractive and appealing Jennifer East is wasted in the small role of Patty Simcox. She is fresh from playing Sandy in another NY state production of “Grease” and would clearly have been better than Bruno in that role.
Over all the men fare better than the women. They have more energy and seem more like a real gang of guys than the women do a group of girlfriends. Andrew Rannells as Doody, and VanDyke as Roger are appealing, sing well, and stay focused in their characters. Keith Andrews is funny as Sonny, the odd- man-out who is perpetually in trouble at school and always hot in pursuit of a girl, ANY girl, who will give him the time of day.
What is lacking is energy. This production just can’t get it up in more ways than one. The direction by Bert Bernardi is lack luster, and the off-stage band could definitely pick up the tempo on every number except “Magic Changes” which they charged through so briskly that poor Rannells barely had a chance to catch his breath.
“Grease” runs through August 23 at the The Theater Barn on Rt. 20 on New Lebanon, NY. Call 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998