Photo by Brett Beiner Photography
When all you have ever seen are several high school productions and the movie, seeing a professional Equity production of Grease comes as both a reminder of its greatness and a revelation. It also provides a wonderful opportunity to see how some audience members celebrate nostalgia. Opening night at Drury Lane Theatre brought out the wannabe T-Birds and Pink Ladies—I saw a couple of post-retirement women who were clearly having a great time—as well as the usual cohort of elegantly dressed men, women, and non-binary people on display to take the journey back to 1959.
I’m guessing, by the way, that the Tennessee and Florida legislators would be more apoplectic about some of the outfits than the production’s Miss Lynch (Kyra Leigh) gets about some of the unseemly dance moves in the second act. (Leigh, by the way, is hilarious as the authority figure that the “teens” get to play off of.)
Grease, though, has always been a show with a wonderful combination of youthful enthusiasm, individuality, and joy (as well as the awkwardness of the teen years), even if its ending does appear to indulge the kind of anti-woke conformity that is as unfortunate as it is accurate…and undeniably entertaining. (More on that later.) It is a show about young people getting their first brushes with adulthood, its necessities, and its consequences. More, though, it is a celebration of friendship, first loves, music, and dance: the essential elements of being a teenager.
Director/Choreographer Paul Stancato has crafted a show that clearly loves itself: it is openly a joyful manifestation of the jubilant energy of youth. Its well-known ensemble songs pop with the ebullience of a highly talented cast just having fun. Stancato isn’t trying to say something new with them—honestly, is that even possible with numbers like “Summer Nights” and “Greased Lightning”?—but to bring an immediacy to them that is a constant reminder of the exuberance of a time of life that, though it can be hard, is the first taste of freedom that most people get. The staging and structure of these two songs in particular reflects the movie, but why try to subvert expectations and thereby mess with what works so well? Besides, there are always little extras that make each scene his own. Personally, I loved the way that both acts ended with the entire school gathered on the bleachers for a celebratory photograph commemorating this singular time in their lives.
While Stancato is formidable with his choreography of the huge numbers (especially the complicated ones that make up the high school hop scene), his other strength here is in the honest performances he brings out of his cast in their quieter, solo moments. The most wonderful thing about this production is how much time it gives to even the most minor characters. Stereotypes like Vince Fontaine (Victor Wallace) and Johnny Casino (Zac Richey), though true to the script, feel individual and real. Cha-Cha DiGregorio is wonderfully rendered, with much help from Emily Scinto’s dancing ability. Sonny and Roger (Jordan Arredondo and Nik Kmiecik), the lesser-known T-Birds, each has a totally individualized personality, which makes them much more fun than if they were just pawns for Danny and Kenickie to move around.
In any real high school environment, boys like the way over-the-top Eugene (a super performance by August Forman), the shy, confidence-lacking Doody (impressive anti-energy—yes, that’s a compliment—from Ben Dow), or the over-achieving Patty (Olivia Belfie, showing off superhuman energy) would probably end up the butts of many jokes. And, sure, they take some grief here, especially Eugene, but even he is awarded opportunities to take the spotlight (which Forman makes the most of every time).
If you’ve only seen the movie, you might think that the Pink Ladies consist only of Rizzo (Alina Taber, having more fun with the role than Stockard Channing ever dreamed of) and Frenchy, the wanna-be beautician (played here by the effervescent Ciarra Stroud). The play, though, provides opportunities to shine for Marty (Anna Louise Bramlett) and Jan (Elizabeth Stenholt) as well, though their solo moments didn’t make the film.
Frenchy, who doesn’t have a song, offers Stroud plenty of opportunity to explore the confusing vicissitudes of adolescence. The staging of “Beauty School Dropout” (sung beautifully by Evan Tyrone Martin) has her standing with her back to the audience watching as her dreamed-of future unravels in front of her. But the teenage years are a time for overreaching, and Stroud’s reaction when it’s over basically says let’s just get on with life then.
Taber has, of course, much more to do, since Rizzo is a deeper (and more caustic) character. Channing—who, of course, was in her thirties when she played the part—portrayed her as pretty much always angry at everything. Taber allows teenage cracks to shine through that armor: we see her having real fun at the sleepover, at the dance, and in her relationship with Kenickie (Billy Rude, strutting his stuff as a quintessential car guy). She enjoys every second of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” where she makes fun of the new girl, Sandy. But she is also the one facing the most difficult consequence: her pregnancy scare. Her performance of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” is absolutely heartbreaking.
As to the leads, both Sandy (Emily Schultheis, who reminded me throughout of a non-Australian Olivia Newton-John, and that is definitely a compliment) and Danny Zuko (Jake DiMaggio Lopez, a performer gifted with a fabulous voice as well as great looks and incredible dance moves) bring us the ups and downs of high school romance while simultaneously letting us see the confusion they hold inside. Schultheis’s lovely rendition of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” balances perfectly with Lopez’s “Sandy”: both are plaintive love songs that reveal the complex processes of the heart. And when they get together for “You’re The One That I Want,” well, though I was hoping that Stancato would find some way to balance the 50s-ness of it, I was easily able to put aside all thoughts of how demeaning and chauvinistic it is to believe that the girl must always change herself for the guy and just enjoy a sparkling, wonderfully rendered moment with great acting, singing, and dancing.
Technically, this production of Grease shines as radiantly as possible. Jeff Kmiec’s high school set, with 50’s Chicago looming over it—did you know that this play is actually set here? I didn’t!—is as perfect as it is flexible. The Greased Lightning car (properties design by Cassy Schillo) is a delightful surprise. Rachel Boylan’s costumes and Emily Young’s wig and hair design look as if they were preserved in a time capsule. And the lighting (John Burkland) and sound (Ray Nardelli) couldn’t have been better. This is one Grease that shouldn’t be missed.
Grease is playing at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, until June 4. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.