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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

4 Movie Songs Augment Grease at Paper Mill

Grease, the final production of the 2002-2003 season at the Paper Mill Playhouse, reveals the once "new '50s rock ‘n' roll musical" to be a rapidly aging artifact of the 1970s.

In February, 1972, Grease, a fresh feeling little musical which had been developed by neophyte writers in Chicago, opened at the Eden Theatre on 2nd Avenue at 12th Street (albeit under a Broadway contract) and took the theatre world by storm. The production moved on to Broadway, racking up a spectacular 3,388 performances before its closing over eight years later in 1980. In 1978, a movie version attained enormous popularity. Performed to popular success around the world, Grease has attained classic status in the eyes of many.

At the time of its New York opening, I found Grease to be a nice little show. Seeing the same production on Broadway later in its run, I found it to have morphed into a more sexually suggestive version of itself, replete with added and/or enhanced use of obscene gestures and postures. I do not know where or when Grease picked up crude lyrics, which are not in the Samuel French issued text, but were in the 1994 Broadway revival. Paper Mill seems to have employed the lyrics published by French, and, despite the inclusion of four songs from the movie version, this text is closely followed throughout. I cannot speculate as to whether employing the lyrics in this text constitutes restoration or expurgation.

It now seems clear that the principal appeal of Grease lies in its exuberant melodies. A pastiche of '50s music, the score offers a fair share of lively, melodic fun. For some, nostalgia for the '50s could be a plus factor. Adolescents and young adults may find titillation. However, it is difficult for me to understand how any audience could accept the outmoded values in which it glories. Possibly, a sharply satiric version could effectively ridicule the stupidity displayed by the greasers and their gals. Certainly, the pleasures of musical theatre have been known to encourage us to leave our thinking caps home.

However, it now seems that Grease is disgraceful in its treatment of women as sex objects, even to the point of condoning sexual harassment. As Paper Mill's production of this "rock ‘n' roll" musical is clearly aimed at family audiences (i.e., "Family Week at Grease July 1 —6 Kids go half price ... "), this is especially relevant. In fact, I think that a strong case could be made that Hair, which, after being announced for this season, was rejected by shocked nabobs here, posits a far more responsible moral code.

Some specifics. Sandy, the goody-goody Immaculata Catholic School virgin, transfers to Rydell High where to her surprise she finds that Danny Zuko, the boy who was her summer fella at the beach, is a fellow student. Danny is the leader of the Burger Palace Boys, a bunch of randy, empty headed greasers whose only visible interest is the ineptly aggressive pursuit of sex. Sandy, despite being totally opposite to them, is unaccountably adopted by the greasers' female counterpart group, The Pink Ladies. Led by the tough Rizzo, these overly painted gals are outsiders who compensate for their shortage of brainpower with an excess of attitude.

The student roster is completed by Patty, a ridiculed, all-American type cheerleader; Eugene, the class valedictorian, an inept, gullible fool; and Cha-Cha, a homely, unkempt Catholic schoolgirl.

Sandy and Danny are kept apart for most of the the show by way of weak, barely motivated situations dropped casually into the lazy book. However, near the end, they feud because Sandy isn't prepared to have sexual relations with Danny. After being remonstrated in song by the exceedingly promiscuous Rizzo for being a tease, Sandy realizes the error of her ways. Via a makeover, she attains the trashy appearance of a Pink Lady, resulting in her final reconciliation with Danny.

However, Danny has been totally entranced by Sandy since long before the opening curtain. Sandy's transformation is only significant to him because it signals that she will now do the right thing and surrender her virginity to him. Furthermore, the Burger Palace Boys sexually harass cheerleader Patty, placing their hands in private areas and, in one instance, grinding into her from the rear. Maybe the good folks at Paper Mill are unaware of the angst caused in a nearby community by real life high school youths with similar predilections.

And do you know what's cool? Smoking cigarettes. Really, really cool? Inhaling, no French inhaling. Whatever that is.

The book is extremely weak throughout. Most of the scenes play as if they are revue sketches written around previously written songs which have no particular relevance to anything else here. Examples abound. Marty announces that she is cold and puts on a kimono, given to her by a Marine boyfriend stationed in Japan. This is the cue for her to sing "Freddy, My Love," illustrating what she writes to him in order to keep the presents coming. It is a humorous takeoff on teenage love songs of the doo-wop area. However, there is no further mention of Freddy.

The extremely weak double entendre song "Mooning" is set up for greaser Roger and his Pink Lady Jan by Roger's out of the blue story that he has "mooned" their poor old English teacher. Director Mark Hoebee does make certain that we get "mooned" by Roger. I had the feeling that Hoebee was treating me like Roger had treated his English teacher. I suggest that he check out Enchanted April where such business is actually funny because it has wit and legitimate context.

"These Magic Changes," a truly pretty '50s style tune, is less annoying in its setup because it has almost none. It goes something like, "Doody, where'd you get the guitar?/ I took lessons this summer/ Could you sing us a song?" That's essentially all there is. "It's Raining on Prom Night" is introduced on a radio, but thematically works, although Prom Night has no role here.

Although better integrated, even the rousing and delightful "Greased Lightning" feels the basis for the scene around it. The lyric, actually a laundry list of car parts, is on the weak side. However, the printed text version used here is preferable to the one employed in the 1994 revival as it tells us the purpose of the "cool" car —"You know without a doubt, I'll be really makin' out" — without finding it necessary to rhyme "tit" and "sh—."

The only organic, plot-advancing number in the show is "Summer Nights," which sets up the entire dynamic of the show. And it is a damn good song to boot.

The four songs trucked in from the movie are a mixed blessing. "Grease" replaces the "Alma Mater" parody as the introductory number for the greasers and their girls. There's not much to the lyric, but it's a nice rhythmic tune, and the piece it replaced is a poor attempt at humor. "Hopelessly Devoted to You" is sung by Sandy after her first departure from Danny. It sounds like Nashville, failing to blend comfortably with the original score. "Sandy" is sung to her by Danny at the drive-in movie and replaces "Alone at a Drive-In Movie," which Danny sang with his greasers. Your call. Lastly, "You're the One That I Want" replaces "All Choked Up" in the penultimate spot. Both are numbers for Sandy and Danny and their pals. I think that we are trading up here. In a show where the songs are better integrated, the addition of four movie version songs would bring about serious problems which are not present here. There is no mega mix at the end.

Each of the Pink Ladies and Burger Palace boys are defined by a single characteristic or tic, often related to a song. Thus, a strong director with an eye for nuance and detail is needed to guide the cast to develop their roles beyond the sketch comedy stereotypes provided by authors Jacobs and Casey. Again, director Mark Hoebee's directorial hand is AWOL. However, he always seems around to add obvious, gross humor, such as when greaser Sonny hides a cigarette in his rear end and when Rizzo is forced to make vulgar sounds and movements with her tongue because we are too dumb to understand her drift when she debunks Frenchy's claim that her nickname derives from the way she smokes cigarettes.

This is a talented young cast. Several have previously been seen in these environs to better advantage. Here, with few exceptions, each of their movements and gestures seem to be just so much posing. The artificiality of the entire performance precludes any character from being believable, rendering each one uninteresting and unable to involve us. The makeup, costumes, wigs, lighting and performances combine to make a young cast look hopelessly too old for their roles. The costumes are unattractive and tasteless, but so lacking in wit that they fail to provide any amusement. Even the shoes aren't from the right period. I would love to suspend disbelief, but I need some help from the production team.

Despite all these limitations, favorable impressions are made by Heather Jane Rolff as the overeating Jan, John Jeffrey Martin as Kenickie ("Greased Lightning") and Becky Gulsvig as Patty. It is particularly distressing to see the strong voiced, energetic Leslie Kritzer so badly misuse her talents as Rizzo. Strangely, she manages to appear more mature than Rosie O'Donnell did in the 1994 Broadway revival. She belts out "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" in the manner of a powerful torch song sung by a nightclub chanteuse. This is totally inappropriate both for the song, and the age and status of Rizzo. The stylish '50s arrangement is lost in the process. Her dialogue is delivered with a sledgehammer, draining the role of its humor. The point is that a great disservice is being done to a very talented, developing performer who is left stranded by the lack of any discernible directorial rein or insight.

The choreography by Jeffrey Amsden and Hoebee is mediocre. Not a lot in the way of scenery is required from Grease, but what there is needn't look homemade. James Fouchard has designed a curved arch across the stage with Rydell High School spelled out in neon letters over a unit set of a combination gym and auditorium, but the rectangular backdrops fail to properly fit the shape of the arch.

Even if this production were up to Paper Mill's usual higher standards, Grease would still be laden down with a threadbare, lazy book which promotes predatory attitudes toward young females that are no longer acceptable to enlightened individuals.

Grease at Paper Mill Playhouse , Brookside Drive, Millburn 07041. Performances through July 27, 2003: Wed.- Sat. Eves 8 P.M./Sun. Eves 7:30 P.M./ Thurs & Sun Mats 2 P.M./ Sat Mats 2:30 P.M. Box Office Phone 973-376-4343 or order online at Tickets: $30 - $62.

Grease. Book, Lyrics and Music by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey; directed by Mark S. Hoebee; choreographed by Jeffrey Amsden and Mr. Hoebee; scenic design by James Fouchard; lighting design by F. Mitchell Dana; costume design by Gregory A. Poplyk; Cast (in order of appearance): Brenda Cummings (Miss Lynch); Becky Gulsvig (Patty Simcox); Noah Weisberg (Eugene Florczyk); Heather Jane Rolff (Jan); Jordan Ballard (Marty); Leslie Kritzer (Rizzo); Justin Bohon (Doody); Benjie Randall (Roger); John Jeffrey Martin (Kenickie); Clyde Alves (Sonny La Tierri); Sarah Stiles (Frenchy); Jennifer Hope Wills (Sandy Dumbrowski); Andy Karl (Danny Zuko); Stephen Bogard (Vince Fontaine/Teen Angel); Enrique Acevedo(Johnny Casino); Stacey Harris (Cha-Cha Di Gregorio); Jenn Goodson (Dot); Colin Cunliffe (Mickey).

2003 —2004 Paper Mill Playhouse subscriptions are now on sale. Call the Subscription Office for more information, 973-379-3717.

2003-2004 season schedule:
Sept. 10 —Oct. 19 –Ain't Misbehavin'
Oct 29 – Dec 14 —The Sound of Music
Jan. 7 —Feb. 8 —The Tale of the Allergist's Wife
2/18-3/21 —The Chosen
3/31- 5/9 – Baby
June 2 —July 18- Guys and Dolls.

Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey

Bob Rendell

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