Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
So why are over one thousand people inside the Fox on a sunny Sunday in order to see yet one more Grease, this time presented by Broadway by the Bay's cast of twenty-two? Probably it is because we just cannot get enough of songs like "Summer Nights," "Greased Ligtnin'," and "Beauty School Dropout" or that we just one more time have to see a stage full of teeny-bopping kids hand-jive with hands and feet moving so fast that even we are sweating in exhaustion.
We all know the basic story. Sugar-sweet and new-girl-in-town Sandy Dumbrowski arrives in her poodle skirt and curls on the first-day of school at Rydell High to be greeted by leather-jacket boys priding themselves on being greasers, and tight-pants girls cliqued together in a gum-smacking group called the Pink Ladies. To the surprise of both, Sandy and the Greasers' oh-so-cool leader Danny Zuko run into each other after having met at a beach resort that summer and fallen in serious puppy love. The two have just described different versions of their summer together to the "tell-me-more, tell-me-more" girls and guys respectivelyshe, "He got friendly holding my hand" while he, "Well she got friendly down in the sand." But when they see each other, our Sandy and Danny, Kylie Abucay and Alex Alvarez, have what will be their best moments together of the afternoon as they silkily slide up and down the scale together, singing of their "Summer Dreams" in a hugging harmony.
As the relationship pretty quickly hits snags and as they bit by bit work their way to a climactic, sung realization that "You're the One That I Want," this duo unfortunately never quite captures again after this first meeting the sparking electricity that makes it convincingly clear they are meant for each other. Part of the reason is that this particular Sandy time and again under-sings her opportunities to sell us on her teenage angst and her love for Danny. That is especially true for a very anti-climactic end to the first act when Sandy falls short in terms of convincing us that she is "Hopelessly Devoted to You." This Danny fares somewhat better in portraying the cocky but also lovesick teen, but he too fails to quite hit that edgy, confident, yet lovable Danny we have all become used to seeing.
Fortunately, in this Broadway by the Bay production, the minor characters save the day time and again by knocking number after number out of the schoolyard park. Doody, while hanging out on the bleachers, picks up his string guitar to show his buds the few notes he has learned, with Ted Sclavos starting off in a tentative teen voice and slowly graduating into full vocals that climb sky-high with ease, backed by echoing, smoothly moving girl-and-guy pals in "Those Magic Changes." During a hilarious sleep-over of the Pink Ladies in the all pink bedroom of Frenchy (a big-hearted, fabulously funny Kate Byrd), one Lady named Marty (Samantha Arden) breaks syllables apart (lu-uv, blu-ooo) in "Freddy, My Love," with the full-throated sounds one expects to hear coming from the background radio playing Frankie Valli hits. And to add to the audience's full delight, two teens getting downright serious about dating each other, Roger (Nick Quintell) and Jan (Katharine Andrade), send us all swooning in our seats as they sing in back-and-forth echoes a "Mooning" where Roger's notes especially slide lightly, easily into falsetto heights with Jan answering them in heart-pounding clarity.
And the hits keep coming as the story progresses through the trials and tribulations as well as the equally strong joys and jubilations of being a teen. When pink-haired Frenchy quits high school to learn how to be a beautician, she ends up in the late-night dumps when curling others' hair does not work out for her. To her aid comes her own fairy king with great advice in the form of a singer and a setting worthy of a 1930s musical. Her Teen Angel, decked in sparkling glisten, is joined by dancing beauticians coming down the bleacher staircase while Daniel Lloyd Pies does his own version of crooning and swooning into falsetto paradise in "Beauty School Dropout."
Top-notch throughout in director Alicia Jeffrey's fast-paced, smartly blocked Grease is the 1950s jitterbugging, jiving choreography created by Allison Paraiso and Zoë Swenson-Graham. A particular highlight is the stage-filling "Greased Lightnin'," which begins with car-slapping, arm-pumping, and rag-waving motions around Kenickie's (Anthony Maglio) new jalopy and then becomes a host of tires and steering wheels twirling with their dancing holders across the stage. Of course the stage goes high-stepping, floor-hugging crazy during "Born to Hand Jive" when the school's dance contest becomes an opportunity for couples to out-match each other in dance calisthenics, only to be interrupted by a massive demonstration of everyone performing incredibly fast hand-jiving.
As always, costumes and hairstyles are important elements of any audience's enjoyment of Grease, and costume wiz Merissa Mann and hair/make-up artist Alexis Lazear not only do not disappoint, they both exceed expectations with their end results being both eye-popping and big-smile-producing. Kelly James Tighe's bleacher-dominated set design serves many mixed purposes, and the backdrops of high-school and period pictures and posters provide a great palette for the bold lighting scheme designed by Marcia Madeira.
At the performance I attended, a major issue that showed up early and was never corrected was a too-oft imbalance between the hidden, elevated band of seven and the singers on stage. Time and again the fine playing of the musicians conducted by Nick Perez simply drowned out the vocals of soloists and even the entire ensemble. Other times, a more serious problem was that an individual singer or speaker's mike did not function or functioned on and off. The excellently voiced Katharine Andrade, for example, was completely lost in the duet between Jan and Sandy ("It's Raining on Prom Night"). Even when the entire twenty-plus ensemble took to the stage to sing a number like the finale "We Go Together," the big, blasting sound that the number calls for was not attained, leaving a more muted impression compared to the band.
While this particular production by the perennially outstanding Broadway by the Bay has some specific issues, there are so many elements that work and work well that anyone needing a Grease fix should walk away humming a bunch of songs and smiling big-time with memories of a number of favorites performed exceptionally well.
Grease, through June 23, 2019, at Broadway by the Bay, Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City CA. For tickets and information, visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.