For those who somehow missed the original buzz, the blockbuster movie hit and the lackluster, Michelle Pfeiffer-ized sequel, “ ‘Grease’ is the word” on Broadway yet again.
And just when you thought reality TV had gone as far as it could go, the painfully persistent pop culture phenomenon has transferred venues, infecting Broadway.
The leads of this latest revival production showing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater — Danny Zuko (Max Crumm) and Sandy Dumbrowski (Laura Osnes) — were chosen by the NBC reality TV search/show “You’re the One that I Want.”
Surprisingly it is not these newbie performances that bring the production to a standstill. Though decorated by a supporting cast of Broadway veterans, the show feels formulaic, so formulaic that it often borders on amateur. It’s still light-hearted and fun, but not for the “Grease” aficionado or theatrical snob.
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, this version of “Grease” combines elements of the stage and the 1978 film, featuring four songs composed specifically for the latter.
A brief synopsis for the pop-culturally blind, deaf and absentee: “Grease” chronicles the relationship between Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski — teens who share a summer love but never expect to attend Rydell High together in the fall. Among the progenitors of the good-girl meets bad-boy entertainment genre, the story line develops predictably: Sandy and Danny are accepted as a couple and then into the clique — once she transforms with the help of teased hair, patent leather and Frenchy’s (Kirsten Wyatt) make-up kit. It’s a fun satire and celebration of 1950s high school culture.
Complete with period costumes and sets and replete with colors that can only be termed bold, the production could have resurrected an appropriately stylized reverie if the value of a show could be measured in sequins.
Derek McLane (set design), Martin Pakledinaz (costume design) and Kenneth Posner (lighting design) compose a veritable triple threat. Their near-neon amalgamation produces the very essence of youth. The school dance scene, in particular, brought images of pre-pubescent luau theme parties to mind. They spoke of a time marked by “Those Magic Changes”; they spoke of high school.
In conjuring these images of the not-so-distant, yet forlorn, 1950s past, “Grease” overwhelmingly succeeds.
Yet when compared to the images and sounds implanted in the hearts and minds of an inter-generational audience by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, it falls flat.
If the rest of the show were infused with the enthusiasm of the final curtain call sequence, the production might stand a fighting chance. But throughout the show’s drudging development, the characters consistently fail to convince. The actors do not embody their roles; they merely reflect them.
Rather than exuding excitement and youth, the smiles appear forced and the sex appeal a joke, leaving only a pervasive awkwardness. The choreography comes across as hard work, as if the dancers are consciously counting every sequence in their box steps. The fun and abandon intended by the dancing is thus utterly lost, even when its shimmying approaches the intensity of Jazzercise.
Only the conductor, Kimberly Grigsby, appears to bop and sway with the music out of genuine desire. The pit is located above the stage — a move that often distracts from the onstage developments. By comparison, her gyrations of joy leave something to be desired amongst the actors.
No one performance is terrible, but a few stand out. Notables include Wyatt’s mastery of comedic timing and Betty Rizzo’s (Jenny Powers) heartfelt complexity.
In the end, the theater is packed and the audience is enjoying itself, cheering from the moment the leads step onto stage. Why?
Quite simply, the production survives by its ability to capitalize on nostalgia. Even as it drags, the audience is yanked from droning monotony into hand-clapping, skirt-twirling, stage-humping fun by a catchy number everyone loves because everyone knows it — and sings along.
As a feel-good musical, “Grease” delivers, however inconsistently. Should you “make it a point to stop by” this “joint”? Maybe … if you still think “joint” is synonymous with “place.”