Recent Chicago theater lore has it that the idea for mounting this deeply intriguing, engaging “The Original Grease” emerged, or at least advanced, when the last touring version of the show came through town — a production that did its Broadway casting on television and ended up so meek and edgeless that it came off as a live-action “Archie” comicbook. The production raised memories of how this iconic musical, inspired by co-author Jim Jacobs’ high school experiences, had begun so differently 40 years earlier. Playing at a small local venue in 1971, the show was a raw and raunchy take on 1950s Chicago teenhood.
“The Original Grease,” which uses the bulk of the pre-New York book and revisits songs long since left behind, could have been just an exercise in nostalgia, but this American Theater Company staging turns out to be something more sincere and surprising, re-creating a time and a working-class ‘tude, and offering an honest glimpse into what a now-familiar show felt like when it had more modesty than gloss, when its characters represented real people from a real place.
One of the most interesting qualities of this archeological effort is that you recognize easily that the show needed structural and musical improvements to become the hit it did. You can almost hear producers saying to the talented and ambitious young authors, “Do you mind if they grab their crotches less?” or “Can you give that a melody and make it more upbeat?”
And you can’t argue with them. The artistic/commercial process involves sacrifices, and you can hardly claim that “Summer Nights,” “Hopelessly Devoted” and “You’re the One that I Want” — all absent here — weren’t improvements, even if they pushed the material toward the generic and sentimental. And the frame of a reunion — here the 50th high-school reunion, originally the 10th — doesn’t add a whole lot, although it does emphasize the fact that these characters are not as far as we used to think from people we know.
That said, there’s a shocking amount of value in finding what existed before. “Foster Beach,” the hyper-local predecessor to “Summer Nights,” might be more cute than catchy, but it’s wonderfully specific. And post-makeover Sandy (Kelly Davis Wilson) singing the climactic “Kiss It” to Danny (Adrian Aguilar) was, well, perhaps too aggressive, even though it’s worth the price of admission to see Sandy as more of a dominatrix than a female Fonzie.
This is “Grease” before the score would be more melodious and possess a contemporary (read: disco) beat, before the central romance (the most murky component here) was beefed up, before the edges were smoothed and the language softened.
With new arrangements truer to an early rock ‘n’ roll sound, and a renewed sense of social context, the excellent cast and director PJ Papparelli make some of the famous songs genuinely revelatory. There’s the a cappella “We Go Together” that emerges organically out of a group hangout scene, emanating a hugely affecting feeling of friendship; and there’s real anger and emotional agony in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” sung by Jessica Diaz, a standout as Rizzo, who’s the character we really most know and root for in this version.
In addition to some other tunes that were dropped early on, there’s a new one for the occasion: a solo for Danny called “How Big I’m Gonna Be,” created from old lyrics by the late Warren Casey. It’s supposed to give Danny a star turn, but it doesn’t get under his skin — in essence, it seems as if any character in the show could have sung it.
But flaws, especially original ones, are in many ways the point. In its dramatic context, “The Original Grease” is a bit like watching a work that moves backward in time — Pinter’s “Betrayal,” Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” — where viewing how it all started provides emotional insight and layers of depth into what you know will happen later. It’s an unusual impact, very difficult to achieve, but you feel it full force here.
And it makes “The Original Grease” a treat, enjoyable in its own right and just plain fascinating as a caringly reconstituted and worthy relic, reclaiming the reality of its characters.