BWW Review: GREASE Starts the 2019 Season at The Merry-Go-Round Playhouse

BWW Review: GREASE Starts the 2019 Season at The Merry-Go-Round Playhouse
Heather Makalani and Michael Notardonato on car and the company of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival of Grease.
Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr. /GFMedia.

The 2019 season of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival has officially begun at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, New York. The season's first musical is none other than the very familiar hit Grease, directed by Igor Goldin. It has been 21 years since a production of Grease entertained audiences at Merry-Go-Round Playhouse and local audiences are, without a doubt, excited to see the familiar musical. The title of the show alone is making tickets disappear like lightning.

The musical features a book, music, and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Many are familiar with the hit 1978 film on which the musical is based, starring Olivia Newton-John as Sandy and John Travolta as Danny.

The plot, in case you've been living under a rock, is this. It's the 1950s and "goody two-shoes" Sandy (Heather Makalani) has recently begun attending Rydell High School where she miraculously runs into her summer love. To her surprise, however, the guy she fell for over the summer seems very different at school; the guy is none other than the leader of the T-Birds Danny Zuko (Michael Notardonato). New girl Sandy is trying to fit in with the Pink Ladies, a rebellious group of girls often seen on the arm of a T-Bird. With this good girl hanging around school nowadays, Danny is concerned about his reputation if he reveals what his summer was really like to his T-Bird friends. He still adores the good girl Sandy.

Musical director Corinne Aquilina brings high energy as she directs the eight-member orchestra. Unfortunately, on the night I attended, the energetic orchestra often overpowered the vocalists. Some of the performances of the musical numbers were disappointing, especially the opening number "Grease is the Word," which certainly lacked energy from the cast. There were numerous sound issues throughout the production - in the musical and non-musical moments - which did not help matters.

As far as the performances go, it's clear that the cast members do indeed have good voices. However, their chemistry with one another was basically non-existent at times - and some of the performances were dull and robotic at times. Yes, they memorized their lines, but the energy you usually find in this typically fun show did not come across in many of the performances.

Also, one usually expects intricate, energetic, and unique choreography in any production of this musical. Phil Cogan's choreography is cute and fun, but it lacks the complexity. The performers did not execute it with the level of energy you might expect in numbers such as "Greased Lightnin'" and "Born to Hand -Jive."

There are some entertaining and memorable moments though. Heather Makalani - with her petite frame, wide-eyed expression, sweetness and spunk - makes a lovely Sandy. Makalani is from Guam, so she does not have the typical look for Sandy (i.e. blonde hair), but her vocals are top-notch especially on "Hopelessly Devoted to You." Her performance certainly changes the stereotype of Sandy.

Other standout performances include Lindsey Alley (as Miss. Lynch) who steals the spotlight in "It's Raining on Prom Night." Nick Martinez, as Doody, brings the house down with "Those Magic Changes," a definite favorite in the production. Jessie Davidson, as Marty, sings a memorable rendition of "Freddy, My Love." Mia Gerachis, as Rizzo, the leader of the Pink Ladies, delivers a consistent, emotional, and memorable performance. She shines especially bright on "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." Viveca Chow as Patty is a highlight as well; she shows off her spunk and charming expressions. Travis Przybylski as Roger has some standout vocal moments and Darius Harper delivers a memorable and unique performance of "Beauty School Dropout" as Teen Angel. Harper also brings some much-needed interest and energy to the number "Born to Hand Jive" as Vince.

Michael Notardonato, without a doubt, looks like the picture-perfect Danny, which is probably why he has played the role before in the States and internationally. His vocal range is excellent, and they take center stage in his standout number "Sandy." Notardonato's look and vocals fit the role, but his actual performance (including line delivery) was robotic and lacked energy and passion on the night I attend.

Notardonato and Makalani did not showcase much believable chemistry as Sandy and Danny; however, their chemistry got slightly better in the second act. The two leads, along with the rest of the ensemble, delivered an entertaining "You're the One That I Want" and "We Go Together" Reprise.

The visual appeal of the show didn't disappoint. Scenic designer Nate Bertone beautifully transforms the Merry-Go-Round stage into Rydell High. His two-story set features numerous doors and windows that allow for easy and effortless scene changes. Tiffany Howard's costumes defined each character perfectly. She provided a traditional yet fresh take on these familiar roles. Alfonso Annotto's wig design was spot on as well, especially the greased hair, pony-tails, and dramatic wigs for "Beauty School Dropout." Jose Santiago's lighting design was emotional and appropriate, which was helpful in making some of the more lackluster performing moments seem a little better.

All in all, Grease at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse a fun show thanks to the familiar and catchy musical numbers. People of all ages love the songs and the story - and rightly so. The vocals are good, the look of the show is outstanding, but unfortunately the chemistry and energy are lacking overall. The show will, without a doubt, fill the seats thanks to the title, but the production is disappointing.

Running time: Two hours and ten minutes with one fifteen-minute intermission.

Grease runs through June 26, 2019 at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, located at 6877 E. Lake Road, Auburn, New York, as part of the 2019 season of The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival. For tickets and information on this production and upcoming productions, click here or call 315-255-1785.


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From This Author Natasha Ashley