This pre-Broadway tour should make lots of money thanks to a strong cast, tight direction, hotsy-totsy sets and an audience of baby boomers eager to revisit the ’70s version of teen life in the ’50s. Perhaps ironically, many boomers brought their kids to see what is now considered good, clean fun — but which in 1972 was described as vulgar romp.
The draws are Rosie O’Donnell, who played Madonna’s pal in “A League of Their Own,” and Ricky Paull Goldin, Dean Frame of the soap “Another World.”
“Grease” ain’t great musical theater, but East Side Story meets Gidget, maybe. Innocent by today’s standards, the story is a slice of high school life. Forget drugs, guns and dysfunctional families: This is 2 1/2 hours of fast-paced escapism.
What else, when the dramatic climax finds the straight-laced heroine suddenly throwing caution to the wind and putting on lipstick and tight pants to fit in with her buddies, the greasers and their girls of Rydell High? Subtext? We’re talking here about an announcement that the overdue “friend” of one of the girls has arrived, an intimate moment of relief shared by her boyfriend and the entire cast.
O’Donnell is fine as gum-snapping, bubble-blowing Betty Rizzo, streetwise mama and president of the Pink Ladies. Singing will never be her strong point, but with more time on the boards, one hopes, she’ll cut down on both the gum chewing and an awkward tendency to hit the mark and wait for her line.
Goldin is very good in the romantic lead; his Danny Zuko is an amalgam of the insouciance and warmth of those other two Italian teenage lovers, the Fonz and Romeo. Susan Wood as his girlfriend, Sandy Dumbrowski, is a Juliet for all centuries: Her voice is magnificent, she’s beautiful and she plays Sandy with an endearing sweetness and spice.
The only grown-up in the cast is Miss Lynch, an English teacher in the tough-exterior, heart-of-gold mold. Marcia Lewis brings it off with a voice like a drill sergeant, great timing and a double-take worthy of vaudeville.
For all that, the absolute show-stopper is Billy Porter as the Teen Angel. Porter has an incredible voice and range and an overpowering confidence that make his hilarious soul-strut and only number, “Beauty School Dropout,” worth the price of admission.
Director/choreographer and Tommy Tune protege Jeff Calhoun gets credit for mounting a “period” revival that feels natural. There isn’t a self-conscious minute of “Hey, are we doing ’50s-style stuff or what?” And there’s plenty to be self-conscious about: poodle skirts, drive-ins, starched crinolines that defy gravity and a teacher who can instill fear in her students instead of the other way around. Tune oversaw concept and casting, and will help with fine-tuning on the road.
Chorus numbers range from the pajama party self-parody of “Freddy My Love” to the unlikeliest of all courtship ballads, “Mooning,” sung with pants-dropping gusto by Hunter Foster as Roger, the moon king.
The scenery changes constantly around a core set of a stage within a stage. A proscenium-high drop with cutouts in which faces pop through on cue is reminiscent of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”; poster-paint scenery features Ike and Elvis likenesses; and in “Greased Lightning” props include the front of a full-sized auto and tires that are bounced about the set in a black leather jacket version of a drill.
“Grease” is a cartoon of a show, and this production works because the characters, music and design not only admit its cartoon-ness but revel in it.
The show opened here with four performances billed as rehearsals before moving on to Boston, Washington, Seattle and Costa Mesa, Calif., before a Broadway run skedded to begin in July at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. One couple walked out, hand-in-hand, saying earnestly, “They don’t make music like that anymore,” leading one to believe that while love is blind, sentiment must be deaf. Nevertheless, despite some rough spots, this revival starts out in pretty good shape.