Wednesday, May 12, 2010


‘GREASE’ ends its tour at the Palace

‘GREASE,’ a version of which is now playing at the Palace Theatre, is the consummate 1950s rock and roll story.

It’s 1959, and at Rydell High School (loosely based on Chicago’s inner city William Howard Taft School), it’s time for a new year for the T-Birds and their Pink Ladies. Though often perceived as a slight musical, "GREASE" actually probes into the issues of the era. It confronts teenage pregnancy, gang violence, love, friendship, teenage rebellion, sexual exploration, and class consciousness/class conflict.

‘GREASE,’ the creation of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, opened in 1971. It follows the adventures of the 1950s United States working-class youth subculture known as the greasers. The score re-creates the sounds of early rock and roll.

When it opened on Broadway, much in the tradition of such shows to follow as ‘HAIR’ and ‘RENT,’ it was regarded as a raunchy, raw, aggressive, and vulgar show. Oh, times have changed, and the Cleveland opening night audience was healthily populated by children, tweens and teens, as well as adults.

When the show closed its initial run in 1980, its 3,388-performance run was the longest yet in Broadway history. It was surpassed a of couple years later by ‘A CHORUS LINE.’ It presently holds the thirteenth position for lengthiest run. It went on to be a hugely successful film, a popular 1994 Broadway revival, and a staple of regional theatre, summer stock, community theatre, and high schools.

The present touring production, which ends its run here in Cleveland, highlights American Idol winner Taylor Hicks portraying Teen Angel. He makes a cameo appearance singing one song. Co-author Jacobs says of Hicks’ portrayal, “He's hilarious, because he's not an actor, he's a singer. He does all the stuff like a basic, beginning actor would do, which means he really overplays it and hams it up. But for that character, it's gold." Despite his corny performance, the audience cheered loudly at Hicks’ entrance and loved the post-curtain call rendition of his newest single.

The touring production is acceptable. Maybe the cast has been on the road too long, or they are looking forward to their last paycheck in a couple of weeks when the show drops its curtain in Cleveland, and they return to New York to join the ranks of the 90 or so percent of the members of Actors’ Equity who are unemployed. Whatever, it lacked the necessary spirit to make the show work well. They go through all the motions, but there is a less than real enthusiastic prime time spirit.

The age of the cast members is off-setting. These are definitely not high school students, edging more to the upper twenties and thirties.

Highlight performances include that of the amusing Will Blum, who plays the chubby Roger, otherwise known as “Rump” because of his signature habit of mooning. Bridie Carroll gives a fun performance as Jan, Will’s girlfriend. Their “Mooning,” is delightful. Lauren Ashley Zakrin makes for a sweet Sandy. Her “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is well done. Josh Franklin’s Danny is too suburban clean. He lacks the conceited greaser quality, but his version of “Sandy” was spot on. Kate Morgan Chadwick adds an interesting touch to Frenchy, making her very vulnerable. Both David Ruffin’s Kenickie and Laura D’Andre’s Rizzo lack the underlying hard-edge attitude necessary to develop those parts.

Kathleen Marshall’s choreography was excellent. Highlights were “Shakin’ at the High School Hop,” “Greased Lightnin’,” and “We Go Together.”

The sets for the show, rather than being Broadway level, are rather tired, even somewhat tacky.

Alex, one of the “kid” reviewers who I take to hear a teen’s version of the goings on, gave the show an 8 1/2 out of 10. He thought Will Green (Roger) was “great,” that Lauren Zakrin (Sandy) “had a really good singing voice,” that “there needed to be more greaser attitude by the cast, especially the members of the T-birds.” Of course he loved Bridie Carroll, with whom he had his picture taken after she gave a backstage tour to him and a friend. He also is “definitely going to steal some of the moves of Josh Franklin (Danny),” when he sings “Sandy” in his Solon Junior High School choir’s Spring concert.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The touring production of ‘GREASE’ is an acceptable, but not extremely high quality version of the show. The audience sensed this as was displayed by the fact that the ever-present Cleveland screaming standing ovation, was muted. If you haven’t previously seen ‘GREASE,’ or if you are a ‘GREASE’ fanatic, seeing the show should be a treat.