Marriott's snarky 'Grease' suggests nostalgia's always in style
Nostalgia never goes out of style, as evidenced by Marriott Theatre's revival of "Grease," the stage/screen hybrid rooted in Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's 1959-set musical and augmented by several songs from the 1978 film.
Thirteen years after Marriott's last revival, "Grease" returns to Lincolnshire with an infusion of snark typically associated with the show's first incarnation (there have been several), which premiered in Chicago in 1971 and opened on Broadway the following year.
Marriott's competent production relies mostly on the 1972 incarnation, which includes "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "You're the One That I Want" from the film.
I found the prickliness of director Scott Weinstein's self-aware production refreshing. It's certainly preferable to the white-bread, big-screen adaptation starring John Travolta as bad boy greaser Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John as good girl transfer student Sandy.
For one thing, Marriott's show is a more authentic representation of the casual cruelties and stinging quips teens inflict upon each other, even upon those they consider friends. For another, snark suits this show, which both satirizes and celebrates high school -- four years dominated by raging hormones and a fierce desire to be cool -- and 1950s' rock 'n' roll.
Marriott's revival stars Jimmy Nicholas as Danny, the not-so-bad-boy leader of the Burger Palace Boys (AKA the T-Birds) whose summer romance with Leryn Turlington's virginal Sandy is tested when classes resume at Rydell High School. Jacobs reportedly based the fictional Rydell on William Howard Taft High School on Chicago's northwest side.
Nicholas and Turlington are pleasant enough, but they don't really generate much heat.
Lyrics got lost in the mix during the earliest numbers, but those issues were sorted out well before the second act when Turlington transformed "Hopelessly Devoted" from a plaintive lament into an anguished exhortation from a determined young woman vowing to "hold on 'til the end." The penultimate "You're the One that I Want," which should have raised the roof, underwhelmed at Wednesday's opening, paling in comparison to the rousing Act 2 opener "Shakin' at the High School Hop." That number segued into the exuberant "Born to Hand Jive" dance competition dominated by Jessica Palkovic's comically uncouth Cha-Cha DiGregorio, a brassy, big-haired outsider from Saint Bernadette's.
Palkovic is among several standout supporting performers. Michelle Lauto is a delight as the deliciously grasping Marty, one of the Pink Ladies, who likes the gifts her Marine boyfriend sends her more than the Marine himself. Jonathan Butler-Duplessis plays the James Brown-inspired, tough love-dispensing Teen Angel, who admonishes beauty school dropout Frenchie (Landree Fleming) to go back to high school. Accompanied by the angelic Pink Ladies and a trio of beauty shop clients (cleverly costumed by Amanda Vander Byl and wig designer Miguel A. Armstrong), Butler-Duplessis delivers a crowd-pleasing falsetto note that nearly stopped the show.
But it's Jacquelyne Jones who impresses the most as tough-girl Rizzo, who lays out the character's well-defined principles in "There are Worse Things I Could Do," the 11 o'clock ballad given emotional weight by Jones' performance.
Ultimately, much of "Grease's" appeal has to do with nostalgia. It's certainly not the paper-thin plot, which has Sandy inexplicably hanging out with girls who don't really like her and Danny inexplicably dating the head cheerleader. Then again, young love is often inexplicable.
More troublesome is Sandy's transformation into a greaser girl to reclaim her man. That's unsettling, until you consider Danny did the same thing when he joined the track team to please Sandy.
This kind of nostalgia trip, however, doesn't demand deep deliberation. Better to let the good times rock 'n' roll.