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Grease

a Musical
CATEGORY :
by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey

COMPANY : Atlanta Lyric Theatre
VENUE : Earl Smith Strand Theatre [WEBSITE]
ID# 4308

SHOWING : April 20, 2012 - May 06, 2012

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

The Musical that gave the world the Rama-Lama-Lama and the Shoo-Bop-Shoowop. Join Sandy and Danny as the 50's ooze their way across the Strand Theatre.


CAST & CREW LIST
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REVIEWS

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Greasing the Bottom Line
by Dedalus
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
3.0
For many years, “Grease” was “The Little Musical That Could.” Scrappy, profane, and energetic, it achieved an almost cult status for its wildly original song pastiches, it’s crisply delineated characters, its sweetly sentimental heart, and its celebration of the “Bad Boy/Girl” in all of us. I saw it a number of times, loving it every time, and a production in Harrisburg became one of the first musicals for which I worked on lighting design.

Then came the insanely successful 1978 movie, and all of a sudden, “Grease” became “The Big Musical That Couldn’t.” The movie rode on the crest of the popularity of John Travolta and Disco, and eliminated most of the smaller “character songs,” adding too many that substituted ‘70’s Disco Drive for the original ‘50’s Back Beat. And, it substituted the crowd-pleasing finale “All Choked Up” (which I always thought of as a proto-feminist “I’m Running the Show Here” coming-of-age anthem for Sandy), with the blandly sentimental “You’re the One That I Want,” a song which, to my ears, has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Since the movie came out, revivals and community productions have tried to “cash in” by retaining the movie’s songs, blanding down the dialogue and lyrics (particularly “Greased Lightning”) and using it as the cash cow it is. Not that there’s anything wrong with selecting shows that’ll bring in the audience, unless that’s your ONLY motivation for including it in the season. Even worse than that, I haven’t seen a production I liked since the movie came out – I’ve even walked out on a few that were as lifeless as Rizzo’s virtue.

Which brings me to the Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s current production. It’s in the time slot for which the exquisitely rapturous “A Light in the Piazza” had been scheduled. The substitution was made not through any problems with the “Piazza” rights, but because the “Grease” rights “suddenly became available and we’ve wanted to do it for years.”

Granted, “Grease” will make a lot more money for A.L.T. than “Piazza” could even hope to (a LOT more), and, these days, that’s a major consideration. I can also concede the affection the A.L.T. production team has for “Grease,” and allow the sincerity of their desire to produce it over and above its commercial appeal. That being said, I do have to acknowledge that the “appearance of selling out” rubs me the wrong way, especially since I REALLY wanted to see “Light in the Piazza” (and I’m not the only one, if opening-night subscriber comments are anything to go by). (For the record, “Piazza” is NOT on A.L.T.’s 2012/2013 schedule, but I’ve been assured it WILL be produced. Eventually.)

Now that that’s out of the way, let me turn my attention to the show I saw, rather than the one I didn’t. This was, perhaps, the best “Grease” I’ve seen since the movie came out, but, truthfully, that’s a bit of a “faint praise.” The voices and performances were all up to A.L.T.’s usual out-of-the-ballpark standards, and the (resurrected?) character songs (“Those Magic Changes,” “Freddy my Love”, and “Mooning,” especially) were welcome and well-done. The set (a stylized juke-box with two levels and many “wagons”) looked great (at first sight). And “You’re the One That I Want” was actually given a doo-wop back beat which made it sound a lot less ‘70’s than the original.

But, I still have some grave reservations about the not-so-magic changes done to the script, and a few questionable design/directing choices that kept the show from being the over-the-top joy ride I was (secretly) hoping it would be. As far as the script, the “cleaning up” of the language and lyrics really runs counter the “bad boy/girl” celebration of the original – How seriously can we take them if they use so many euphemisms? It makes them too bland, too why-do-we-even-care, and seriously undercuts the ending. These are, at root, kids who are going nowhere, and their absence from the opening “reunion” was always a reminder that the (probably) chose the wrong path. Making them “kids next door,” more or less says that they’re choices and actions are okay, just another part of growing up. No wonder parents hate this show!

Also, replacing the original Alma Mater parody with a “pre-prise” of “We Go Together” is also a questionable choice. We all remeber “dirty lyric” parodies of school songs, and the original was a thing of beauty. Now, the show opens with a bland fizzle instead of the usual snarky sizzle.

Speaking of “fizzle over sizzle,” what’s with the looooonnnnnnnggggggg scene changes? This is, at first glance, a nicely designed-for-quick-changes set, a multi-leveled, many-wagoned construction that should let the scenes actually overlap. However, we are stuck here with long gaps between scenes (was it a not-designed-for-quick-change costume issue, or a the-wagons-are-too-large-to-move-quickly issue?). In any case, the scene changes dragged down the pace to a crawl – pre-movie versions of this show clocked in at under two hours WITH intermission – here, it’s pushing 2:45.

Overall, I liked the energy of Ricardo Aponte’s choreography, and the staging of directors Brandt Blocker and Alan Kilpatrick (scene changes aside), with one glaring exception. The show, for me, always built its energy to the explosion of the Act One finale of “We Go Together.” Here, though, that number loses steam as it goes along, until, at the point it should be lighting the stage with energy, the cast actually sits on the steps to just sing. After I was through rolling my eyes, I could only wonder. “what were they thinking?”

The cast, however, did “go together like rama-lama-lama ka-dinga da ding dong.” Maxim Gukhman and Anna Kimmel were pleasantly well-matched in the lead roles of Danny and Sandy, and, more to the point, they let their co-stars shine with eccentricity and character. This is an ensemble show at root, and the ensemble here rises to the occasion. I especially liked Michael J. Austin’s Doody, Nick Morrett’s Roger, and Alison Brannon Wilhoit’s Rizzo, but that’s not to downgrade the contributions of Findley Hansard (Jan), Jill Ginsberg (Marty)*, Bradley Bergeron (Kenickie), Jimi Kocina (Sonny), Kelly Schmidt (Frenchie) or Caroline Freedlund (Patty Simcox). Jevares Myrick was an interesting choice to play Vince Fontaine and Teen Angel – he put a definite Motown spin on the characters that worked (in spite of the the expected period racial tensions). G Devours, Jono Davis, and Elizabeth Neidel Wexler were also memorable in smaller roles.

So, I daresay, if you’re a fan of “Grease” (post-movie), you’re gonna love this. If not, there’s still a lot to like and appreciate. Yes, it’s not the same show I fell in love with back in the late ‘70’s, but there’s enough of that show left to … Oh, who am I kidding? There’s enough left to really gripe about what was lost, about what was put in its place, and about what “should have been.”

And, it’s NOT “A Light in the Piazza.” (Insert angry snarling here.)

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

** A side note to Ms. Ginsberg – mispronouncing a teen idol’s name makes it look as if you haven’t done your homework, Imagine a 2030 play set in 2011 in which a star-struck ‘tween characters refers to “Justin Bye-ber.” I’m sure there are some “77 Sunset Strip” videos on line that’ll let you find out how to pronounce “Kookie.”


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