Review: Gleeful GREASE Revs Up Nostalgia in La Mirada

Still using outdated, trope-heavy storylines, the show is thankfully redeemed by its entertaining musical numbers

By: Jan. 27, 2023
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As ubiquitous and as well-liked as it is, the rock-and-roll stage musical comedy GREASE continues to be such a frequently-produced property that it seems to feel just as comfy on a large regional theater stage as it does on a school auditorium. So it wouldn't be a stretch to say that a production of this well-known show---popularized further into the pop culture ether by its fun 1978 big screen adaptation---is most likely being performed somewhere on this planet at this very moment.

One of those spots, in fact, happens to be the city of La Mirada, right here in Southern California, where the town's resident Broadway-caliber theatrical company McCoy Rigby Entertainment is currently presenting its own lively, if slightly archaic iteration of the musical. Helmed by director Kari Hayter and featuring musical direction by Ryan O'Connell and choreography by Christopher M. Albrecht, this staple of musical theatre is currently spreading its groove (and its meaning) at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through February 12, 2023.

What's surprising for me personally is that, up until this production, I haven't really experienced a complete, full-scale mounting of this musical live and in-person. My only prior exposure to GREASE has been, admittedly, relegated to short clips online of past stage versions and, of course, the highly re-watchable Randal Kleiser-directed movie musical adaptation that starred John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, and Frankie Avalon. I even sat through most of the 2016 live televised remake that aired on FOX.

So what can this era-specific show---which first debuted on Broadway back in 1972---offer these days besides a songbook of memorable earworms, many now iconic musical theater moments, and some lightly amusing though, dare I say, very antiquated vignettes of youth culture that now feel out-of-touch with 21st Century sensibilities?

Review: Gleeful GREASE Revs Up Nostalgia in La Mirada
The company of GREASE. Photo by Jason Niedle.

Well, at least for La Mirada's production, the goal, it seems, is to bombard theatergoers with a huge dosage of gleeful nostalgia and energetically-performed musical numbers as a clever means to distract us from the show's original, now outdated tropes and themes that, frankly, just feels curiously odd and, at times, cringe-inducing to watch during certain spots. Thankfully, wedged between these awkward, problematic vignettes are welcome multitudes of spectacularly-performed songs, pulled off winningly by a talented, hard-working ensemble that gives everything their all.

There's a slight awkwardness to the stories and situations being portrayed here that still spills out despite its buoyant, sparkly surface. Whether any or all of it is actually a disguised hyperbolic parody or an attempted comedic over-exaggeration of 50's middle-American teen life is perhaps still up for debate, at least it is for myself. Strangely, however, I have to wonder why I didn't have this same slightly perplexed emotional response to the film version, which, for me, came off instead as a fun, smile-inducing, more polished time-capsule that charms us with its more organized, more narratively sensible silliness (and, yeah, the undeniable star power of its leads).

This stage version---featuring the officially licensed original book, music, and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey---feels more narratively random and haphazard, despite basically following the same trajectory as its later cinematic glow-up. Many of the stage show's jokes---laced with old-school misogyny and absurdly outdated innuendo---don't quite land anymore (I'm assuming they do in the past). There's even a female character in the mix whose sole purpose is to exist as a recurring fat joke---an exhausting, lazy trope that gets real old, real fast.

With a cast of characters that feel more like broadly-painted teen archetypes rather than thoughtfully-developed young people with palpable nuance and deeper characteristics, it's a bit difficult to root for or even really care for any one particular person at fictional Rydell High School, the setting of this musical. Even the romantic entanglement of the lead characters---bad boy greaser Danny (Ryan Reyes) who feels it necessary to "hide" his recent summer fling with the posh new straight-laced gal-next-door Sandy (the beautifully-voiced Jenna Lea Rosen) from his tough-guy gang---feels forced and implausible... even though this same pairing feels charmingly right for each other in the film.

Review: Gleeful GREASE Revs Up Nostalgia in La Mirada
Rianny Vasquez, Melissa Musial, Jenna Lea Rosen, Monika Peña,
Bella Hicks, and Domonique Paton. Photo by Jason Niedle.

But I suppose one could argue that supporting players like aspiring beautician Frenchy (Bella Hicks) and goofy ne'er-do-well Doody (Steven-Adam Agdeppa) earn enough audience endearment to merit some of our interest. And, of course, there's Pink Ladies' resident bad girl Rizzo (the impressive Domonique Paton), perhaps the only character with actual relatable human layers bubbling underneath a hardened, sardonic exterior.

Kudos to director Hayter and the show's creative and acting team for all their palpable hard work in making a relatively entertaining show overall despite being slightly hindered by antiquated story material that, honestly, really, really needs some revisionist, progressive updating. Who knows? Perhaps some rewrites could add decipherable context to the otherwise seemingly random behaviors displayed by these stock teen characters. I mean, decades of teen comedies and dramas since GREASE has certainly taught us that teens of any era have deeper levels than this.

I do, though, appreciate the production's purposeful color-blind casting, a positive practice applied here that genuinely doesn't feel like an afterthought---and is arguably one of the few visible rejiggerings to the show that makes any tonal sense.

With so many updated/reworked versions of GREASE in existence, I'm slightly bummed that La Mirada's new revival didn't (or, likely, contractually couldn't) make alterations to the sacred text. But by far this production's wisest choice is to weave in three of the film's terrific signature songs ("Hopelessly Devoted To You," "Sandy," and "You're The One That I Want,") that were not in the original stage production. Even Barry Gibb's title song---written specifically for the movie's animated opening---is heard (but not performed live) during the show's opening prologue, part of the scant few elements lifted from the far superior film.

For me, and, perhaps, for most in attendance of the show's recent Opening Night, the production's best and most important attributes are its superb musical numbers, all of which are performed with notable, admiral gusto and a genuine eagerness to entertain. Every actor's voice quality is also a great match for each of their characters' personalities, particularly those of leads Rosen, Reyes, and Paton. Even better, their performances are all framed beautifully within Stephen Gifford's vibrant sets lit by lighting designer Steven Young. The spirited in-house pit orchestra under musical director O'Connell's baton produces a rich soundtrack for them, too.

Review: Gleeful GREASE Revs Up Nostalgia in La Mirada
Jalon Matthews, Max Torrez, Grant Hodges (center), Ryan Reyes,
and Steven-Adam Agdeppa. Photo by Jason Niedle.

These glorious songs---from "Summer Nights" and "Greased Lightin'" to "Beauty School Dropout" and "We Go Together," are, after all, the main reasons why many people have such a fondness for GREASE, and this spunky, talented ensemble---with dynamic choreography from Albrecht---did right by this musical's fans. It's certainly a good enough reason to check out this production... that is if you are able to get past some of its inescapable, quaintly outdated flaws.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

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Photos by Jason Niedle courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Performances of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of GREASE at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, February 12, 2023. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.



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