Hey fellas, give this new national touring company of the so-called Tommy Tune production of “Grease” a break. Even a smidgen of ’50s innocence and the merest hint of charm would go a long way to improve the entertainment quotient of what is now a shrill, rasping, strident, almost smutty trample through what was once a rather sweet little musical.
Most of the cast is capable of being far more likable than they are, so why not let them cool it, relax, and woo rather than clobber their audience? Until that happens, the performances of the leads will presumably continue to phase in and out of focus.
At the end of the first week of the play’s opening two-week engagement in New Haven, Sally Struthers’ Miss Lynch was about the only character who remained clearly defined throughout, a bossy, dumpy, frumpy head teacher who, when plied with liquor, eventually hurls her inhibitions and clothes aside to join the (abrasively squeaky and squealy) Pink Ladies.
That’s not to say Struthers, one of the production’s three stars (along with Rex Smith and Davy Jones), is necessarily the most talented member of the cast. But almost all the others have isolated moments of glory rather than any sort of steady through-line.
Angela Pupello, for instance, has the makings of a first-rate Betty Rizzo, but it wasn’t until her second-act “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” that she finally let loose with her Merman-esque Broadway-belter voice and tore into her role, to which roller skates have been added presumably because Pupello has “Starlight Express” experience.
Smith also doesn’t fulfill his potential as Danny Zuko until his second-act “Alone at the Drive-in Movie,” to which he gives every possible ’50s rock ‘n’ roll twitch and moan. Actually, Smith was probably ill-advised to repeat this role nearly 20 years after he played it in the original national company (he made his Broadway debut as Danny toward the end of the show’s lengthy Broadway run in the ’70s). The many youngsters in this cast tend to show up his age. There’s Scott M. Beck as Doody, well-muscled vocally and physically in “Those Magic Changes”; Nick Cavarra and Robin Irwin are terrific in “Mooning”; and Trisha M. Gorman adds a soaring soprano to her attractive Sandy Dumbrowski. But when the performer playing the one-scene role of Teen Angel is pretty much the star of a production of “Grease,” as is the case with Kevin-Anthony’s riotously exuberant, funky-campy “Beauty School Dropout,” it’s clear that something’s wrong, even though that number is meant to be a show-stopper. It’s equally clear that one of this production’s nominal stars, ex-Monkee Jones, makes little or no impression as deejay Vince Fontaine, either in his audience warm-up before the curtain or during the show proper. He needs help.
Vocally the production is strong, particularly in the harmonized choral singing at its beginning and end, though the hard sound doesn’t flatter the voices. Musical director Vincent Fanuele and his pit band give it all they’ve got. And the dancing — bumps and grinds, twirled tires and all — is triumphant. But visually the production’s sets, costumes and lighting remain far too Day-Glo gaudy, overwhelming rather than complementing the cast and show.
Still, “Grease” itself seems to have built-in box office appeal. And belligerent though this revival is, it’ll probably continue to draw audiences just as the original Tommy Tune touring production continues to do on Broadway — minus Rosie O’Donnell but with Brooke Shields scheduled to go into the role of Rizzo Nov. 22.