'The Original Grease:' No Longer Just the Danny & Sandy Show

Full disclosure: I am a life-long Chicagoan. My mother is a Greek South sider and my father is a Polish Northwest sider. Mom, Dad, Yia Yia Stella, and Busia Evelyn filled my upbringing with tales of corner diners, forest preserves, baseball rivalries, Catholic parishes, crooked politics, and local landmarks, all of which lead to my love of all things nostalgically Chicago. This being said, I was beyond filled with hometown pride the day in my teens when I discovered Grease's Rydell High (immortalized in 1978's summer lovin' movie musical) was based on experiences at Taft High School, my uncles' and many family friends' alma mater. The same kind of Chicago pride, nostalgia, and cultural relevance radiates from American Theater Company's (re)premiere of Jim Jacobs and WarRen Casey's world-wide phenomenon.

The Original Grease, featuring songs and scenes not heard since the 1971 Chicago premier, is not the bubblegum incarnation popularized by recent sing-alongs or reality television casting shows. No sir. This Grease is a gritty, foul-mouthed, neighborhood-centric, terrifically-performed homage to Chicago's Northwest side.

Framed as Rydell High's Class of 1960 reunion, audience members (donning a "Hello, my name is..." name tag) are greeted by the still enthusiastic Patricia Simcox Honeywell (Susan Fay) and still nerdy Eugene Florczyk (Alan Barinholtz). From there, a bygone era is relived through younger incarnations of all those familiar Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys. The framework and older versions of characters are not entirely necessary given the strength of the show, but the most fun about this Grease is experiencing a new show you think you already know. As someone who's conservatively seen some version of Grease around 30 times throughout his life (we're all in this boat, right?), this production kept surprising me.

Secondary characters Roger (Robert Colletti), Sonny (Patrick De Nicola), Doody (Bubba Weiler), Miller (Tyler Ravelson), Marty (Carol Rose), and Jan (Sadieh Rifai) receive fleshed-out story lines, putting them on the same playing field as Danny (Adrian Aguilar), Sandy (Kelly Davis Wilson), Rizzo (Jessica Diaz), Kenickie (Tony Ciarno), and Frenchie (Jessie Fisher). And while Adam Shalzi (a pratfall king), Hannah Gomez (flat-out hysterical), and Bryan Connor are terribly underused as Eugene, Cha-Cha, and Teen Angel respectively, their talents shine beyond their brief featured moments.

Jacobs and Casey's score successfully replaces the Hollywood numbers with tunes from the original production and rearranges favorites to create a rough play-with-music feel. The gangs' "Foster Beach," Miss Lynch's (Peggy Roeder) sweet "In My Day," and Patty Simcox's (Alaina Mills) bubbly "Yeeughh!" stand out as fresh additions to an already famous cannon. But then there's Weiler, Grease's 17-year-old wunderkind, who delightfully strums "Rock Progression" with tender charm. He's one to keep an eye on, folks.

"We Go Together," now Act 1's closer, also stands out as a rebellious a capella number, drenched in friendship and booze along Devon & Milwaukee's forest preserve. A testament to Roberta Duchak's keen musical direction. And whether it's through their Nort'side dialect or sheer moment-to-moment presence, the entire cast and band engulfs themselves into the world of 1959 Chicago.

Director PJ Paparelli and set designer Walt Spangler have transformed ATC's space into a working class garage, rich in leveled performance spaces, spot-on vintage furniture & props, and dilapidated halves of Greased Lightning. Microphone leveling was a tad bothersome, especially when the speakers go from 0 to 60 as soon as a number begins. And the wall of tires on Spangler's set is a bit much, given no scenes actually take place in a garage, but lighting designers Jesse Klug and Mac Vaughy tremendously masters the art of isolation, balancing the line of cinematic scope (giving "Foster Beach" its charm) with dramatic storytelling. And as a whole (direction, Diaz's acting, lighting, etc.), "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" is pure theatrical perfection.

For anyone who's ever lived in Chicago, has a fond spot in their heart for any incarnation of Grease, or eaten a Whoopercheesie, The Original Grease is the show to see this summer. ATC's literature claims "many performances are sold-out" and I do not doubt it for a second. It's a well put together incarnation of a modern (and local) classic.

PHOTO CREDIT: Brett Beiner

The Original Grease runs now through June 26 at the American Theater Company, 1909 W Byron Street, Chicago, IL. For tickets, please visit www.atcweb.org or call 773.409.4125.

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From This Author M. William Panek

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