Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 19, 2007
Grease Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Additional songs by Barry Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis, Scott Simon. Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Wig & hair design by Paul Huntley. Orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke. Starring Max Crumm, Laura Osnes, with Ryan Patrick Binder, Susan Blommaert, Jeb Brown, Stephen R. Buntrock, Daniel Everidge, Allison Fischer, Robyn Hurder, Lindsay Mendez, Jenny Powers, José Restrepo, Matthew Saldívar, Jamison Scott, Kirsten Wyatt, and Josh Franklin, Cody Green, Natalie Hill, Matthew Hydzik, Emily Padgett, Keven Quillon, Brian Sears, Christina Sivrich, Amber Stone, Anna Aimee White.
Whether it’s the best thing for the Jim Jacobs-Warren Casey musical, however, has apparently not been considered. But no matter. There are more important things at stake than the show’s well-being: the audience-cultivating popularity of the phenomenally successful 1978 film version (which starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John) that must be respected, to the point of interpolating four of its songs and continuing the sanitization trend it started; as well as the questionable novelty of this production being the first Broadway show whose leads were cast by the American television-viewing public.
In case you missed it (and most people did), the NBC reality show You’re the One That I Want! scoured the U.S. for talent, then pitted 14 finalists against each other for the opportunity to headline as leather-jacketed wannabe-tough Danny Zuko and his apple-pie sweet squeeze Sandy Dumbrowski. Overseen by Kathleen Marshall (the production’s director-choreographer), Jacobs (the co-author; Casey died in 1988), and David Ian (the token bitchy-Brit producer), the series was a pallid, rent-controlled American Idol imitation, but successful enough to nab two attractive young stars in Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, and interest enough people to rack up an advance sale of over $13 million.
You’re the One That I Want! also heavily promoted and propagated Grease as a family affair, which is considerably different from Jacobs and Casey’s original conception. When Grease opened in New York in 1972, it burst the nostalgia bubble with a demented, contemporary attitude that so unflinchingly satirized ‘50s teen films' mores and plots that many people over the last 36 years have mistaken the book and score as legitimate. The movie’s power-sanding of the show’s harsher edges, and the good-time-rock-and-roll Broadway revival and tour of the mid 1990s, have only reinforced this view.
Marshall’s production demonstrates every danger that exists in taking this material at face value: Without the extra grit provided by the parody, these teens and the troubles they’re facing lack most of the laughs and all of the heat that could make such deliberately hackneyed situations (like being mocked for your virginity or enduring a drive-in movie alone) bearable for two hours. Everything becomes the real-world equivalent of an Archie comic book (and, indeed, Derek McLane’s sets, especially the show curtain that depicts a sharp-colored and clean-lined façade of the setting of Rydell High, and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes could be ripped unchanged from those pages) or worse, other recent witless musical fluff like The Wedding Singer or Legally Blonde.
There’s not a lot of humor, for example, in a Doody (Ryan Patrick Binder) who sings of “Those Magic Changes” while the world around him evinces no clue of its pop-provenance irony. Or in a Roger (Daniel Everidge), the class’s pants-dropping artist, who croons with Jan (Lindsay Mendez) about “Mooning” as though it were anything other than an extended double entendre. Or in a beauty-school-dropout Frenchy (Kirsten Wyatt) who seems so genuinely upset about her failure as a makeover artist, you believe her cries to the Teen Angel (Stephen R. Buntrock) who wants to convince her to go back to high school.
As for Crumm and Osnes, they both sing prettily (though Crumm lacks confidence in his falsetto) and make Danny and Sandy their own as much as is possible. If Osnes is better as the innocent debutante than the go-go kitty who prowls about the final number, she's thoroughly likeable throughout; Crumm’s geek-chic take on Danny is unusual, but casts effective new light on someone who's never all he claims to be. But neither is dynamic enough to elevate a Grease that would need a constant IV of Vitalis to attain even trace amounts of slickness.
No, what Grease needs is someone at the helm more in tune with its unique comic and musical rhythms. Marshall's recent track record has not been great - her revival of The Pajama Game last year also relied on hokey characterizations for most of its jokes, and her Two Gentlemen of Verona the summer before that sucked most of the fun from a show that should be a big party - but she always imparts a welcome exuberance into her shows that make her seem like a good choice gone just slightly wrong. Regardless, this is the first Grease I've seen where songs like "Summer Nights," "Greased Lightnin'," and "We Go Together" don't stop the show cold, but rather stop it dead.
Perhaps that's not so surprising, though. Judging from the TV show and what’s landed onstage, Marshall, Jacobs, and Ian weren’t interested in doing the Grease that is, but rather the one everyone expects. The two shows aren't identical, and while those three may have gotten the one that they want, their efforts are bound to leave everyone else all choked up - for all the wrong reasons.