At the Marriott Theatre by Dan Zeff
Lincolnshire –“Grease” was one of the most popular shows of the 1970’s, first on Broadway and internationally starting in 1972 and then as a motion picture starring John Travolta in 1978. The show is a satirical salute to the early years of rock ’n’ roll in the late 1950’s and has remained a staple of the musical theater revival circuit for decades. The Marriott Theatre is presenting its third production of “Grease” (previously staged in 1989 and 2007) and the middling results of the 2020 revival suggest that the musical is wearing a little thin, though not helped by the current uneven production.
“Grease” has always been primarily a strong audience show rather than a work of musical theater art. Its attraction mainly resides in its authentic sounding rock music score and its nostalgic appeal to audiences who take pleasure in returning to a simpler teenage time of leather jackets on the boys and bouffant hairdos on the girls. It was a world captured happily by TV sitcoms like “Happy Days,” but that world is now more than six decades in the past and references to Sandra Dee don’t necessarily trigger laughing recognition from an audience.
“Grease” originated in Chicago with book, music, and lyrics by a pair of local young men, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. It didn’t get rave reviews when it first emerged but it struck a nostalgic nerve in audiences. The show set a long run record on Broadway that lasted until 1980 and gave boosts to a mass of performing careers. The popularity may resonate with viewers today, though at least for me, with diminishing impact.
The story centers on a group of high school students at the fictional Rydell High School in Chicago, specifically the Pink Ladies female clique and their male equivalents, a clutch of teenage lads led by greaser leader Danny Zuko (the show’s title comes from the grease pomade the boys favored to plaster their hair down). The chief characters exude a whiff of deli1quency, reflected in minor thieving like stealing hub caps, smoking, sexual banter, and occasionally expressing themselves with obscene gestures, all pretty unthreatening by today’s gang standards.
The main plot revolves around the struggling romance between Danny Zuko and a goody-goody school transfer named Sandy Dumbrowski. But mostly the show is carried by songs like ‘Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightning,” “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” “Beauty School Dropout,” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” (the show’s one serious number and a good one as sung by Jacquelyne Jones), along with rousing dance numbers like “”Shakin’ at the High School Hop” and especially “Born to Hand Jive.”
The Marriott revival is not one of this theater’s more effective efforts, though the 20-member cast works hard and the Marriott orchestra conveys the music with finger snapping zest. The characters in the show are supposed to be teenagers but the Marriott ensemble of young people all appear to be well into their 20’s, perhaps inevitable in casting a professional production but still undercutting the youthful exuberance of the evening. And some of the males look positively wholesome, rather than intimidating. Still, Michael Kurowski scores nicely as Doody, the most likeable member of the guy gang.
The Marriott in-the-round playing area necessarily limits the scenic effects that would be accessible to a proscenium stage. Still, some of the scenic choices seem curious. There are images hung from the rafters that should enhance the 1950’s aura of the show but we get advertisements for Walgreen’s and Jewel, still thriving today, when it would seem more atmospheric to reference Robert Hall discount stores (actually mentioned in the book), maybe a James Dean poster. The choreography is lively enough but I thought more could be done with the “Hand Jive” number, such a knockout in the movie. The best production number musically and visually is the fantasy ”Teen Angel” number that’s a wailing showcase for singer Jonathan Butler-Duplessis. Leryn Turlington gets highest marks in the tricky role of Sandy Dumbrowski, who converts from a virginal innocent into an in-your-face member of the Pink Ladies, pedal pushers and all. And she has a terrific expressive singing voice.
For the record, Jeffrey D. Kmiec designed the set, Amanda Vander Byl the costumes, Jesse Klug the lighting, and Sarah Ortiz the sound. Scott Weinstein is the director, William Carlos Angulo the choreographer, and Patti Garwoood the music supervisor (outstanding as usual).
Judging by the loud positive reaction by the younger members the opening night audience, “Grease” can still work today, though opening night cheering has become something of a ritual in Chicagoland theater. But the show seems more and more to rise or fall on the dancing and singing and credible casting, most needing enhancement at the Marriott. So there are pleasures in this revival but the charms of the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll may be on a diminishing entertainment slope unless the show soars like “Million Dollar Quartet.” The next Marriott show will be “Kiss Me Kate.” Now there is a musical that joyfully has stood the test of time.
‘Grease’ gets a star rating:.
“Grease” runs through March 15 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Most performances are Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $60.
Call (847) 634-0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.