Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of I Love You Because
The current national tour of Grease is based on the recent Broadway revival, which itself was mostly a by-product of a reality TV show to cast the two leads. It combines elements of the original 1972 Broadway mounting and the famous film. Audiences wishing for a nostalgic trip to the late 1950s or to revisit the material they came to love on the silver screen may certainly enjoy this tour. However, despite some fine performances, this production lacks punch and theatrical flair.
Grease is the story of the 1959 graduating class of Rydell High. The kids are concerned mainly with being cool, "scoring" with the opposite sex, and making it through their final year. New kid on the block Sandy is surprised to find out that her summer boyfriend, Danny, is a student at Rydell. Danny, however, shuns goody-two-shoes Sandy in front of his friends to protect his reputation as a rebel. Eventually, with the help of the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds, their respective "gangs," the pair ends up together and all is well at Rydell High.
The book for the musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey lacks emotional depth or significant conflict, and is surprisingly unfunny. Though it can't be said that this version of Grease mirrors either the original Broadway production or the famous film, it does more closely resemble the original stage mounting, which includes lots of "filler moments" and is unfocused. It should be stated as well that this tour script includes much more sexual content than many parents may expect, especially those using the film as their only frame of reference.
The Broadway revival from the mid-1990s suffered from not including a number of songs composed for the film version by various writers, including "Hopelessly Devoted to You," "Sandy," "You're the One That I Want" and the title number. Thankfully, those were included in the recent revival and are present in the tour production. However, audiences are also subjected to songs that were made background music for the film such as "Freddy My Love," "It's Raining On Prom Night" and "Those Magic Changes," which are less interesting and pull focus from the central story, despite the fact that they give many of the supporting characters a chance to shine. Most of the songs fail to advance the plot and are simply period-style material. The best songs in the original score, also written by Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Casey, are "Summer Nights," "Born To Hand-Jive," "Beauty School Dropout" and "We Go Together".
Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall has done better work on other pieces. Though she supplies a few very strong directorial choices ("Those Magic Changes" for one), the overall production comes across as extremely manufactured. There is a lack of chemistry or connection between most of the characters, and she is unable to overcome the material's weaknesses. Her many dances possess the proper rebellious attitude and are period appropriate, but also appear stiff and "choreographed" rather than natural.
Though the material and direction is lacking, the individual performances are strong. This version of Grease is quite an ensemble piece, so many performers get their time in the spotlight and deliver winningly. Eric Schneider has charisma and a confident singing voice as Danny, and Emily Padgett displays wonderful vocals and the sweet innocence of Sandy. Of the many worthwhile performances turned in as support for the leads, Brian Crum (Doody), Bridie Carroll (Jan) and Will Blum (Roger) are the standouts. American Idol champ Taylor Hicks does well as the Teen Angel, but the part is little more than a cameo.
Derek McLane's set design goes for more of a cartoonish approach than realism, and the costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are apt and attractive. Still, both design elements appear to suffer from lack of a bigger budget available to these designers. Kenneth Posner's lighting is his typical first rate quality.
Though the current tour of Grease offers some wonderful performances, this very much by-the-book amalgamation of stage and screen versions is too weak to fully satisfy most theatergoers. Grease continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through February 1, 2009. For more information and tickets, call (513) 241-7469.-- Scott Cain