Grease review

Grease review

Grease Review - Broadway musical

Changing the channel is not an option.

I am sorry to report that the limp new production of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s “Grease,” which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, is not governed by the rules of audience control that applied to “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” the reality TV show through which this revival cast its stars.

I only occasionally dipped my toes into those protracted television auditions, which were broadcast (to meager ratings) last winter on NBC. The spectacle of all those bouncy, sunny young things self-consciously singing off-key, suggesting a karaoke night in Fort Lauderdale during spring break, was a sobering reminder of why the remote control exists.

But in live theater, if you’re a reasonably polite person, you stick with the show you’ve paid for, at least for the first act. With “Grease” this means that if you last until intermission, you sit through more than an hour of a musical set in a high school that feels like a musical put on by a high school — and I don’t mean a high school of performing arts.

Let me hasten to add that no one in the young cast of this revival, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, is flat-out terrible, including Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, the 21-year-olds elected by television audiences to play Danny and Sandy, the romantic leads. Nobody noticeably strays from melodies, flubs dialogue or botches rudimentary dance moves. Ms. Marshall has obviously drilled her cast thoroughly.

But there’s the numbing sense of performers of undeveloped talent conscientiously doing what they have been told to do and failing to claim their parts as their own. Though set off by comic-strip, era-defining sets (Derek McLane) and costumes (Martin Pakledinaz), the cast members show little affinity for the 1950s style that is celebrated and satirized here. The effect is rather like one of those makeover shows in which everyday people are dressed and groomed to resemble red-carpet regulars and wind up looking like game but uneasy impostors.

The reincarnations of “Grease,” first staged on Broadway in 1972, can be read as a map of showbiz devolution. That original production had the amiable air of a gritty spoof, enacted by a lively, raunchy ensemble of youngsters just old enough to understand what they were spoofing. The vastly popular 1978 film, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, was a slicked-up, cleaned-up frame for its teenage idols, not all that different from the campus-cutup frolics that starred June Allyson and Van Johnson. (This Broadway revival is the first to feature four songs composed for the movie, including the title song and “You’re the One That I Want.”)

The long-running revival that opened in 1994, produced by Barry and Fran Weissler, was a mindless, trashy theme park of a show, which managed to prolong its life beyond all sane expectations with revolving-door replacement casts of celebrities in career limbo. The implicit message was that anyone who is famous could star in a big-time musical, an outlook that continues to inform the Weisslers’ blockbuster revivals of “Chicago” at home and abroad.

The message of this latest “Grease” is that anyone, famous or not, can star in a Broadway musical, a natural enough conclusion in the era of YouTube and “American Idol,” when the right to be a celebrity is perceived as constitutional. And I can see how Ms. Marshall might have talked herself into believing that this democratic approach could work for “Grease.”

After all, the musical began life as a modest, do-it-yourself cult hit in Chicago in 1971. And unlike many youth-oriented shows, it has continued to appeal to successive generations of teenagers, including the current demographic that has turned the Disney “High School Musical” franchise into a cash machine. “Summer Nights” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” are now karaoke staples among teenagers. (O.K., maybe not the coolest ones.) Why not a people’s “Grease” that would reflect its belonging to everyone?

But for this sensibility to work, a theatergoer has to be personally invested in its stars’ doing well. Those who religiously watched “You’re the One That I Want” may cheer Mr. Crumm and Ms. Osnes the way high school students might root for their chums in the class play. (“Did you know she could kick like that?” “He looks so funny with that pompadour.”)

Those who come to “Grease” without such sentimental attachments are sure to be baffled by the lack of wit, charisma or original presence on the stage. Given the choice between slick soullessness and rough-edged sincerity, I’ll take the latter any day. But most of the cast here seems uncomfortably wedged between those extremes. Everyone is reasonably proficient but devoid of the heightened personality that is essential to landing jokes and selling songs.

Ms. Osnes has a valedictorian’s poise, a sweet singing voice and eyes that instantly well up during emotional moments. But she approaches Sandy the good girl with the earnestness of a first-year acting student doing Juliet.

Mr. Crumm has the dopey, likably sly face of a nerdy class clown, which makes him a refreshing if improbable choice for the studly Danny Zuko. But he never projects the authority of a natural leader of the pack. (Every time Danny pulls up the collar of his leather jacket in a cooler-than-thou gesture, it feels as if Mr. Crumm is actively remembering this is something he needs to do.)

Among the rest of the cast (who were not, for the record, elected by television voters), only Kirsten Wyatt, as Frenchy, the beauty school dropout, shows any command of comic timing. The dance numbers, which quote Patricia Birch’s prototypes, are executed dutifully instead of joyously.

The objective of Ms. Marshall, who so memorably rejuvenated “The Pajama Game” a year ago, seems principally to get her cast through the show without any of its members embarrassing themselves. They don’t, although a truly embarrassing moment or two might at least give this “Grease” some of the raw life it lacks.

There are several fantasy metamorphosis numbers in “Grease,” when characters suddenly find themselves wearing glittery rock ’n’ roll clothes and surrounded by backup choruses. Such transformations are what this “Grease” is meant to be about: ordinary kids becoming superstars before your eyes.

But in none of these numbers does the level of performance rise in intensity, polish or even plain old fun. This revival is a reminder that even in the new democracy of fame, it takes more than a change of wardrobe to make a bona fide stage star.
Last Update:November, 08th 2023

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