Critic Proof Grease
Also see Bob's review of The Tempest
One need only observe the enthusiastic response of a Paper Mill audience to a performance of Grease to know that the stage musical continues to bring blissful pleasure to its fans.
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. Even a grumpy critic is not immune to the delights contained in the score. And it is here that the Paper Mill production is at its finest. For on-stage is a tirelessly exuberant, hard driving, enthusiastic, sharp and tight eight-piece band that puts on a show (aurally and visually) that recreates the excitement that rock and roll bands brought to high school kids during the 1950s. The perpetually in motion conductor Brad Simmons, on the keyboards, singing along with the cast, and even grabbing a microphone and singing the lead on one number will surely draw your attention and appreciation
However, for me, the book which surrounds the music is extremely lazy and, generally, makes only the most perfunctory efforts to integrate the songs into it. Even worse for me, it is ultimately offensive in its attitude toward young girls, advocating that they acquiesce to boys in their sexual behavior. Some have said that Grease is being satiric here, but the serious set up for Sandy's decision undermines such an interpretation.
For those who may have forgotten, the story is that Sandy, a sweet, innocent Immaculata Catholic School virgin, has unexpectedly transferred to Rydell High. Much to her surprise, she learns that Danny Zuko, the boy who was her summer boyfriend at the beach, is a Rydell student. Danny is the leader of the Burger Palace Boys, a bunch of randy, empty-headed greasers whose only visible interest is the (inept) pursuit of sex. Although she is totally opposite to them, Sandy is unaccountably adopted by the greasers' female counterparts, the largely slutty Pink Ladies. Led by the tough Rizzo, these overly painted femmes are outsiders with a shortage of brainpower and an excess of attitude. However, Zuko rejects her because his friends make fun of her apparent chastity.
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 evening 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. She also acts in a sexually provocative manner with Danny, making it clear that her virginal days are a thing of the past, resulting in a final reconciliation with him.
What else have we? Well, there is the smoking of cigarettes. And French inhaling. Whatever that is. It is also amusing when three of Zuko's friends prepare to fight another group of guys with chains, a club and, I'm pretty, sure a zip gun.
It is painful for me to contemplate audience acceptance of the outmoded values which it glorifies. So please don't tell me how innocuous and mild Grease is. To you, it may well be, but not to me. For what age is Grease suitable? Well, putting its morality aside, I would suggest that if your child is too young for you to want him/her to ask you, "what's a hooker?" or "what does going all the way mean?", then you may want to pass up taking him/her to see it.
As in its 2003 Paper Mill revival, now and probably forever, three of the songs from the original production have been replaced by four songs which were written for the 1978 movie. When it first opened in New York in 1972, Grease was more cute and funny than vulgar. However, by the time that it was mature in its Broadway run, it had become aggressively vulgar (at least in the gestures and physicality in performance). Happily, director Daniel Goldstein has held such behaviors mostly in check for this production, which is far less gesticulatory vulgar than the 2003 revival.
The youthful cast performs well across the board. The performers who register most strongly are Matt Wood, who brings a sense of personality to Roger (and not due to the "mooning" bits with which he is stuck), and Telly Leung who excites the house as the "Teen Angel" singer on "Beauty School Dropout." Donna English gives it her all in the inconsequential role of Miss Lynch.
The direction by Daniel Goldstein and choreography by Joann M. Hunter are lively and get the job done. The scenery and costumes are based on the "Broadway Design" by Derek McLane and Martin Pakledinaz, respectively.
So don't forget that those rockin' and rollin' and doo woppin' songs by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey (along with additional songs by Barry Gibb, John Farrar, Scott Simon and Louis St. Louis) are being greeted rapturously by audiences at Paper Mill. If you think that Grease is the ticket for you, you should get on over.
Grease continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday through Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm) through June 29, 2014, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Grease: Book, Music and Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey/ Additional Songs by Barry Gibb/ John Farrar/ Scott Simon/ Louis St. Louis; directed by Daniel Goldstein