‘Grease’ at the Marriott Theatre is a refreshing blast of Pink Ladies and 1959-era Chicago
“Huh,” I thought, wandering into the typically packed Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre Thursday, kicking the salt from my shoes. "You can still get an audience for ‘Grease.’”
The salty haired suburban crew Thursday — and I say this with love — were mature enough that a betting person might wager that at least a few of them went to Taft High School, the original Chicago musical’s setting, or at least hung out with T-Bird or Pink Lady types. On one of the best days of my career, Jim Jacobs, the co-writer, drove me around the North Side and said, as we cruised Norwood Park and Harwood Heights and the blocks right around Taft, “Sandy lived here” and “Danny lived there,” even as my eyes popped out on stalks.
“Grease” was written about real Chicago kids (I’ve since been haunted by how Jacobs described the real Danny’s difficult post-high school life) and its scenes had specific locales (Frenchy’s party takes place in Caldwell Woods). These were working-class kids, mostly the spawn of Italian and Polish immigrants. They were far, far away from Broadway or Hollywood or John Travolta or Olivia Newton-John.
And it didn’t take me long Thursday to see that Scott Weinstein, the director, got what mattered most even though most directors don’t. He has cast actors who can play high school kids. Actually, this is not so much a matter of physical appearance or even of age, but of understanding the mix of braggadocio and insecurity that makes up teenagers, who really don’t change much with the times. At the risk of spoiling the dramatic tension — please! — the best moment in this production is the transformation of Sandy (Leryn Turlington). In all those crummy national tours you saw, she changed, right? She dropped her old persona to please her guy. Not here. Sure, she dresses up a bit but she looks ridiculous and Weinstein and Turlington — who plays a nervous kid, not an ingenue on her way to the casting office and a new life — make clear she is still the same Sandy. She hasn’t really changed. Teenagers cannot transform overnight.
The other truth about “Grease,” I’ve decided in all my 20 or more viewings, is that Danny (Jimmy Nicholas) is really just good-looking furniture. This is the Pink Ladies’ show, folks. And Weinstein has a coiled Rizzo in Jacquelyne Jones who’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, such is the emotional freight she adds to those Warren Casey cord changes. Add in Michelle Lauto as Marty and Landree Fleming as Frenchy and you got a gang.
Cast Fleming in a character role and you get entire little separate shows going on, being as Fleming, a signature listener on the stage, always completes every tiny moment. She had me laughing my socks off at a bit I bet she invented where she pretends to stick a fork into the back of the loathsome Patty Simcox (Alaina Wis, who gives as good as she gets).
The other great strength of the show is that Weinstein constantly plays with teenage fantasy and self-dramatization, shifting perspectives from their actuality to their dreams, especially in “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Jonathan Butler-Duplessis has a terrific cameo as the Teen Angel, but the show doesn’t forget that scene really is about Frenchy.
The set isn’t much — it doesn’t need to be much. The choreography, by William Carlos Angulo, doesn’t pretend these kids are on “Dancing with the Stars,” which can ruin its veracity.
But this simple milieu does evoke Bryn Mawr Avenue (what an ironic name), Walgreens, Superdawg and Jewel. The Marriott is not using “The Original Grease,” as re-created for American Theater Company in 2011, but it is retrofitting the licensed version. Very well. In the ways that matter.
Behind me, I heard a silver-haired lady chuckle at a mention of Robert Hall.
I stopped her on the way out. “Where was that?” I asked. “Oh, we all went to Robert Hall Clothes,” she said, with a wink.
At 2900 W. Devon. 'Round the corner from Rizzo’s place.