Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Just as Vanya and Sonya resume their toil on the farm at the end of their play and the three sisters never get to Moscow, the teenagers in Grease finally emerge from anguished misunderstandings, their romances and friendships renewed and restored. Maybe it's as close as a big, optimistic American musical can get to the dour, naturalistic Anton Chekhov. And maybe that's one of the reasons Grease is a classic, too, in this new production at Stages St. Louis: like Chekhov, it stings the soul. But in typical American fashion, it instantly offers up a balm of ebullient, early rock 'n' roll-style music and dance.
(Does that mean Uncle Vanya could benefit from a good kick-line?)
The acting style in this new Grease is funny, heartfelt and direct under the guidance of Michael Hamilton, with lovely musical direction by Lisa Campbell Albert and energetic choreography by Tony Gonzalez. The musical, written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, debuted in a Chicago club in 1971 before being staged on Broadway a year later. And six years after that, the film version ousted The Sound of Music from its spot as the top grossing Hollywood musical of all time, in its initial release. This latest version at Stages also includes the 1978 movie theme song by Barry Alan Gibb, with additional tunes by John Farrar, Louis St. Louis, and Scott Simon. But it's worth noting that the movie was a sanitized re-write, and you may have forgotten about the stage version's frequent moderate cursingif you were thinking of bringing the grandkids along, that is.
There's also a whiff of satire in some of the sustained notes of the love songs for this Sandy (Summerisa Bell Stevens) and Danny (Sam Harvey). In spite of that, a fine level of sincerity prevails, because both performers are so thoroughly adept. And somehow, probably because of all of their authenticity, we are glad to allow a second or two of winking in the climactic moments of their duets. Ms. Stevens was one of the few performers who escaped the wreckage of Stages' Nine to Five with her integrity intact, two years ago, thanks to her glimmering focus and commitment in the Dolly Parton role. Now in Grease, in the Olivia Newton-John role, her gifts are every bit as sharp and controlled.
Comparing Grease and Nine to Five for just a moment, I'm coming to the conclusion that what divides a good Stages production from a bad one is simply the quality of the book. The talent and design values are always first-rate. But in their less successful summer productions, the artistic team never seems to rise above, or even recognize, a weak libretto when they see it, in their one or two historically craptastic musicals each year. When you see obvious structural flaws in a show you've committed to, aren't you obliged to compensate for them? (I'm also thinking of their overly credulous Big River and the uninflected self-glorification of They're Playing Our Song, as well as this summer's The Boy From Oz, in which the death of the main character barely registers as a "plot-point.") There's a big difference between a good show and a "feel good" show. But that distinction is invariably lost on the otherwise outstanding Stages team.
Fortunately, Grease is both good, and "feel good." Jesse Corbin and Morgan Cowling are excellent as Kenickie and Rizzo (he's great singing "Greased Lightning," and she's wonderfully torrid in "There Are Worse Things I Could Do.") And Brooke Shapiro and Collin O'Connor are delightful as the adolescent Jan and Roger. Then, just when the sock-hop atmosphere is beginning to wear at the heels and toes, Kendra Lynn Lucas unexpectedly blasts the roof off the building with "Beauty School Dropout." Earlier, she appears as the teacher, Miss Lynch, though, strangely, her high school students seem to do everything except actually attend high school classes.
Still, this two hour and forty minute romp graduates with honors.
Grease, through August 18, 2019, at Stages St. Louis, Robert G. Reim auditorium, 111 South Geyer Rd. (on the south end of the recreation center), St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.stagesstlouis.org.
The Cast (in order of appearance)
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association