With the 1994 revival of “Grease” enjoying a successful Broadway run, a national touring company took to the road in September. While this “official” bus-and-truck edition is closer to the Broadway staging than to the 1972 original, it is both stronger and weaker than the production that played the Orange County Performing Arts Center last March on its way to New York.
Like the ’94 version, the road company is directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune disciple Jeff Calhoun, and billed as “the Tommy Tune production,” with all the same production design credits.
New strength comes from a redefined emphasis in the casting of well-known performers. In the Broadway version, celebrities (Rosie O’Donnell, Brooke Shields) are cast in the secondary part of tough-girl Betty Rizzo, throwing the whole show somewhat off-balance.
Road version features Rex Smith in the leading role of Danny Zuko, with Sally Struthers and Davy Jones as uptight schoolteacher Miss Lynch and disc jockey Vince Fontaine, parts where showboating doesn’t so much detract from the still-weak storyline involving mismatched lovers Danny and Sandy.
Jones — his Monkees-era teen appeal still more or less intact at the age of 49 — and Struthers handle their strengthened roles with much elan, though relative unknown Brian Bradley showed considerably more energy as Fontaine in the Broadway-bound edition.
Smith, who played high school “The 1940’s Radio Hour” tough Danny during the show’s ’70s Broadway run, is closing in on 40 himself; he and the rest of the “teens” in this cast look like members of Sha Na Na.
The weakness in the current edition comes from an overall lack of spirit: While the earlier version virtually jumped from its DayGlo stage, this one largely dissipates into the theater.
There are exceptions: The “Born to Hand Jive” number is brightly choreographed and performed; Melissa Papp and Lawson Harris as Patty Simcox and Cha-Cha Digregorio steal pretty much every scene they’re in (Papp should get hazard pay for her stunt in the cheerleading routine); and Kevin-Anthony has one of the show’s stronger singing voices, though his Teen Angel is much more understated than Billy Porter’s raving Little Richard impersonation in the 1994 Broadway cast.
The touring cast has been beset with calamity: Struthers suffered an injury earlier in the run that has her wearing a leg brace (to no noticeable detriment) , and bronchitis pulled Angela Pupello from the Pasadena opening. But the good news is that her understudy, Wendy Springer, is terrific in the role — a virtually definitive Rizzo.
The original score by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey has been augmented by several songs. Deejay Fontaine plays several records before opening curtain, dancing with members of the audience and generally revving up the crowd, and the old Skyliners hit “Since I Don’t Have You” has been brought in as Sandy’s big ballad — she had none in the 1972 version of the show.