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'Grease' at Marriott Theatre

The Marriott Theatre opens its 45th season with director Scott Weinstein's staging of GREASE, the 1971 musical that was born in Chicago and became a Broadway hit, a famous film and a perennial favorite of theaters across the country. With book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the show follows sheltered Sandy Dumbrowski (Leryn Turlington) as she navigates social life at Rydell High School, where she's the new girl in the class of 1959. Befriended by a world-wise clique called the Pink Ladies, Sandy soon discovers that her boyfriend of the previous summer, Danny Zuko (Jimmy Nicholas) also attends Rydell and is the leader of a leather-clad gang of "greasers." Can innocent Sandy and tough-guy Danny rekindle their summer romance in the complicated social scene of Rydell High?

Undoubtedly, Jacobs's and Casey's rock-and-roll-infused score will always be one of GREASE's biggest draws. It's easy to get swept up by this cast's energetic delivery of catchy hits like "Summer Nights," "Hopelessly Devoted to You," and "Beauty School Dropout"--the latter featuring Jonathan Butler-Duplessis in a brief but hilarious turn as the Teen Angel. William Carlos Angulo's lively choreography keeps pace with the toe-tapping score, reaching its peak during the high school dance scene in Act II.

As Sandy, Leryn Turlington proves to be one of the smartest casting choices I've seen recently. Her youthful looks, high-pitched speaking voice and sweet demeanor perfectly convey the naiveté of "Sandra Dee." As soon as she begins to sing, Turlington commands the house with smooth, rich vocals that are eminently suited to Jacobs's and Casey's score. Alongside Turlington, the Pink Ladies shine in this production, without a weak link among them. Landree Fleming (Frenchy) and Tiffany T. Taylor (Jan) show strong comedic skills, while Jacquelyne Jones (Rizzo) and Michelle Lauto(Marty) add impressive vocals to the mix. Together, the women achieve a charming chemistry.

Unlike the Pink Ladies, the greasers tend to underwhelm. In the role of Danny Zuko, Jimmy Nicholas has a fine voice but often is overpowered by other singers or the instrumental accompaniment. Michael Kurowski proves the most memorable of the greasers, both through his singing and acting, as the endearingly awkward Doody. Jake Elkins (Roger) shares some funny moments with Tiffany T. Taylor (Jan) as their characters tentatively flirt with each other. Overall, the greasers are entertaining, but less developed as individual characters and less cohesive as a group than the Pink Ladies.

According to his press interviews, director Scott Weinstein is drawn to the grittier aspects of the original version of GREASE, which was cleaned up for the Broadway and film versions after its Chicago premiere. Weinstein and his cast set out to draw a more realistic portrait of the difficult issues that teens face in high school. They achieve mixed success. Several themes surrounding teen sexuality--pregnancy, consent, even a mention of date rape drugs--are treated seriously and ring true to life. On the other hand, when a neighboring gang threatens the greasers with a "rumble," the impending violence gives way to comedic antics as the ill-prepared boys gear up for a fight. I'm not asking for anyone to dial down the plentiful humor and sheer exuberance of GREASE, but a more consistent tone when addressing these teen problems would help Weinstein achieve the tough realism that he's after.

Another key element of Weinstein's--and Turlington's--interpretation is that, contrary to popular opinion, Sandy ultimately changes her persona for herself, not for the boy she likes or the clique she wants to fit into. I could almost buy into this view, by a stretch of the imagination, but it doesn't change the fact that Sandy remains "hopelessly devoted" to a guy who treats her poorly throughout the show. In their most cringe-worthy scene, Danny physically pressures Sandy to go farther than she wants, continuing to push even after she says "no" three times. It leaves a bad taste that lingers even as the reconciled couple sing the upbeat hit "You're The One That I Want" in the finale.

Overall, GREASE is showing its age. Though it's a decade younger than the Marriott's previous show, OLIVER!, both of these classic musicals feature some troubling plot lines for female characters, despite the best attempts of directors and actors to find empowering new angles. Nevertheless, aside from this one complaint, the Marriott's GREASE delivers plenty of joy and humor while hitting some serious notes about teen issues that are still relevant today. Perhaps it's not the perfect musical for 2020, but it still offers an entertaining night in the theater.