Some elections have proven that America doesn’t always make the most farsighted choices. That forlorn conclusion is amplified loud and clear in the dispiritingly bland Broadway revival of “Grease”: Letting the people choose their own Danny and Sandy does little to validate the democratic election process.
The voting took place during the finale of NBC’s lackluster talent competition series, “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” which aired over 12 weeks earlier this year.
As a promotional gambit, the reality show appears to have been successful. While it was perceived as a ratings disappointment, an average of 7.5 million viewers per episode is a massive increase in the number of folks normally exposed to direct Broadway marketing. That factor, plus the enduring popularity of the 1978 bigscreen “Grease,” have helped the Rialto revival play to near capacity through previews and build a sizeable $15 million advance.
But casting choices should be made by qualified professionals and based on broader considerations — not heavily edited song-and-dance samples. The ability to build and inhabit a character was one important facet pretty much ignored in the TV trials, as was the vital component of chemistry between the two winners.
In the U.K., TV talent searches for the leads in West End revivals of “The Sound of Music” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” yielded hit productions and met with generally supportive critical response. The formula’s American debut (which follows a tepidly received London “Grease” remount by a week) may well go on to financial success, but, in terms of energy and freshness, it’s flat as a pancake.
Not that there’s anything especially wrong with Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, the pair chosen to play cool-dude Danny Zuko and his innocent summer love Sandy Dumbrowski, respectively, in Kathleen Marshall’s low-wattage New York production. They sing confidently, dance capably and have their own low-key, unaffected charms. But they’re unprepossessingly innocuous, which is not a great quality in musical theater leads. What’s more, they have less-than-zero sexual connection.
In a regional theater production — which is what this one resembles — Crumm and Osnes might be the toast of the town; the latter’s vocals, especially, are lovely and she handles the high notes with admirable ease. Basically, they’re two talented kids who would be fine on the support team but have no business carrying a Broadway show. They also have the kind of tiny bodies and small, telegenic features that don’t communicate beyond row C of the orchestra.
The strength of choreographer-director Marshall’s staging — whether it’s her revivals of “Wonderful Town” and “The Pajama Game” or her spirited dance numbers in “Kiss Me Kate” — has been her knack for injecting buoyancy into potentially creaky material. She has consistently bucked the overmined trend toward condescending irony, refreshingly presenting period pieces at face value.
None of this factors into Marshall’s “Grease,” however, which smacks of a presold title being lazily recycled and owes more to the movie (from which it includes the popular additional songs) than to previous stage incarnations.
It also represents perhaps the final step in the sanitization of a once-irresistible property, now drained of every ounce of the raunch and blue-collar suburban Illinois grit that gave the show its edge. At this point, it’s barely distinguishable from Disney’s squeaky-clean contempo progeny, “High School Musical.”
Edge also is largely absent from the supporting cast. Comic figures like stern schoolmistress Miss Lynch (Susan Blommaert), suave radio host Vince Fontaine (Jeb Brown), guiding spirit Teen Angel (Stephen R. Buntrock) and class bore Patty Simcox (Allison Fischer) are given routine treatment that undersells the laughs. Everyone does what’s required, but the director hasn’t exactly driven them to dig deep for inspiration.
While they’re all a little long in the tooth for the parts they’re playing, the matching cliques of awkwardly testosterone-fueled T-Birds and sassy Pink Ladies generally register more amusingly, particularly on the distaff side. Jenny Powers’ Rizzo seems more hard and bitter than tough and trashy but she plays it with the requisite jaded attitude and delivers the show’s best song, the rueful yet unapologetic “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” with conviction. Man-crazed blonde Marty (Robyn Hurder) and ditzy Frenchy (Kirsten Wyatt) also hit the right comic notes.
Best of the bunch, however, is Matthew Saldivar’s Kenickie, balancing ice-cool self-assurance with disarming touches of oafishness and insecurity, not to mention sharp comic timing. Without wanting to beat up on miscast Crumm, it’s easy to imagine Saldivar (lately of “The Wedding Singer”) bringing more natural ownership and some much needed dangerous sexual allure to Danny.
On the tech side, Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting do the job without particular distinction while Derek McLane’s cartoonish sets could use more stylistic unity. Orchestrations are thin and Marshall’s uninventive choreography on the cramped stage seems too content to take its cue from “Born to Hand-Jive,” the one number in which any significant electricity is sparked.
The most dismal thing about this “Grease” is that, aside from the two discoveries plucked from a mediocre TV talent pool and thrust into this production, no one appears to be trying very hard. Like the drag-queeny wig slapped on Sandy when she finally conforms to the cool-kid ethos by unleashing the bad-girl within to win Danny, it all seems somewhat counterfeit.