BWW Review: Pittsburgh CLO's GREASE Is Still the Word at Benedum Center
When was the last time you went to a show and were disappointed that it wasnTand 't at all racist, sexist or homophobic? As Tevye would say, "sounds crazy, no?" But what if the show in question was a brutal satire about the blinding power of nostalgia, and the way it sands the rough, objectionable edges off the past in order to provide a palatable, mainstream-friendly image of a past that never was? Wouldn't you be justified in being a little disappointed that this new adaptation has lost its train of thought, and become the very thing it was once parodying? Or is that just as bad as the Internet trolls who got mad last month that "Archie Bunker can't say the N-word anymore" in the restaging of All in the Family and The Jeffersons?
This is a tricky issue. Lord knows I hope no one is accusing me of being a bigot in any way, and if I've offended anyone, I apologize strongly and sincerely. I suppose my issue here is with authorial intent and satire. The original Grease, even after it had been neutered for its initial Broadway run, was a spoof of period pieces. The music was primitive and a little squeaky-clean, but the characters singing it were unidealized losers: they used racial slurs, they treated their women like crap, they indulged guiltlessly in petty crime, and they made gay jokes and ethnic jokes like it was nothing. Even the women were rougher around the edges than you'd see in Happy Days, and not in endearing ways. The show's original opening sequence was a class reunion in which the goody-goodies of the 1950s announce that some of the classmates they remember the most would not be joining them: they were killed in Vietnam and Korea in the earliest, roughest version, they were in jail in a later revision, and finally they were "just too cool for class reunions." Instead, nowadays the greasers and Pink Ladies just burst out of a gym locker, strutting and singing "Grease Is the Word." They cuss a little, they tussle a bit, and some of their language isn't too PC, but you'd struggle to call the greasers or the Pink Ladies scumbags.
Take away that satiric underpinning of "forget Fonzie, this is what the fifties you daydream about were REALLY like," and you lose a little bit of cohesion. The show doesn't have too much of a plot; events just come and go in a loose picaresque, characters butt heads here and there, and eventually it sort of... ends. (Both the film version and the live TV version tweaked the plot to make things more linear and character based, as opposed to the "and now they're singing because we wrote a song" feel of the revised Broadway script, upon which this production is based.) At the same time, is this reinvention of the show as a genuine piece of nostalgia, instead of a criticism thereof, necessarily a bad thing? Sixty-some years removed from the birth of rock and roll, criticism of nostalgia feels less urgent and more futile- it's not like somebody today wrote a show pining for their glory days in the Bush Era. And as I looked around the theatre, I was amazed at how multigenerational the fanbase of Grease was. Sure, you had the usual mix of young millennials, families and blue-hairs (only it's Grease, so I saw more than a few pink-hairs), but then there were the wannabe T-Birds and Pink Ladies. (Yes, yes, I know they're actually called the Burger Palace Boys in the script, but the Burger Palace never actually appears in the revised script, nor are the greasers referred to by ANY gang name in the script, so everyone still thinks of them as the T-Birds unless they check the fine print in their program.) I saw old men, Boomers, millennials and even little kids in leather jackets and white t-shirts; similarly, girls and women ages seven to seventy were rocking poodle skirts, Pink Lady jackets and plastic sunglasses. It was like a PG Rocky Horror. Clearly, Grease as a cultural artifact means something to these people on a sincere level, and not an ironic one, and as a theatre writer and composer myself, it's hard to begrudge the success of something that has actually come to mean something to the world at large.
Okay. Enough of my structural analysis of why Grease does and does not work. Grad school is over, I have my degree. Let's talk about the production. Director and choreographer Barry Ivan's staging, in a licensed production based on the most recent Broadway incarnations (there are about a dozen variant versions of Grease out there, and this is the current most common), has kept the show zipping along, fast and funny and full of energy. Never missing an opportunity for a high-energy dance number, Ivan adds hula-hooping to "We Go Together," rock-star fantasies to "Those Magic Changes," and even burlesque to "Shakin' at the High School Hop." His talented ensemble, including teens from CLO Academy, is clearly having a hell of a time.
Zach Adkins, as Danny Zuko, wisely dials back the caricatured aspects of his archetypal greaser, going less Travolta or James Dean and more subdued. If you imagine Ryan Gosling as Zuko, you've got the idea, only Gosling's rough, thin indie-rock voice can't do the things Adkins does. Kristen Martin's Sandy is fresh-faced and earnest, her Disney-ready voice shining in every solo and ensemble number; it's a shame this current incarnation of the script skimps on her character development compared to one or two of the others, because Martin is clearly capable of a much deeper character than the Broadway Sandy Dumbrowsky. The rest of the greasers and Pink Ladies are mostly on comic relief duty, though each has a chance to shine: Melessie Clark and Alex Prakken amping up the physical comedy in the innuendo-laden "Mooning," Mei Lu Barnum smiling blithely through Frenchie's ongoing cluelessness, Daniel J. Maldonado nailing the transformation between Doody's musical imcompetence and growing guitar-playing skill. And then there's Jackie Burns as Rizzo, who almost feels like she's in a different show than everyone else (in a good way). She inhabits this thinly-drawn character with a confidence and physicality, as well as a knockout voice, that feels more human than anything else in the play. It probably helps that Rizzo's open relationship with Kenickie (Vince Oddo), which was meant to make her look slutty or disreputable in the old days, now seems like a pretty common "friends with benefits" situation unlikely to raise an eye or call her character into question today.
This being Grease, the show really belongs to the bit players and comic cameos. Andrea Weinzerl, a frequent presence over the past few years in ensemble tracks for Pittsburgh Public's musicals, gets a fantastic showpiece as pushy Type-A Patty Simcox, Sandy's rival for Danny's affection. With a mile-a-minute upbeat jabber straight out of Tim Burton's suburbia satires, and incredible moves in the Act 2 dance contest, Weinzerl definitely proves she's more than a just a chorus girl. Her partner in crime, high school nerd Eugene, is played by Jordan De Leon, and in one of the few really positive changes from the original, this Eugene is more than just the butt of constant nerd jokes and gay jokes- he may come across as stuffy and effete for most of the show, but when he finally gets his turn in the dance contest, he not only proves to be just as good a dancer as the greasers, but (to Patty's dismay) just as much of a horndog. It's not exactly character development, but it's a fun subversion of expectations. Also in the dance sequence, Matt Bogart's recurring cameo as full-time DJ, part-time pedophile Vince Fontaine gets plenty of laughs, though they may be more uncomfortable than they used to be in this #MeToo era.
And don't think I've forgotten Clay Aiken, the big star around whom this production has been marketed. I will fully confess that I had misgivings about Aiken's casting, expecting one of far too many lifeless "ex-superstar comes out in white clothes, sings like they're at a concert and then leaves" put-ins that the role of Teen Angel has been subjected to. Gosh and shucks was I wrong. The Clay Aiken of 2019 is an improbable but winning fusion of Billy Porter's voice and Martin Short's everything else. Making an entrance dressed as Liberace, towering in sequined "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" platform shoes, and mincing wincingly down the stairs towards Frenchie, Clay Aiken has blissfully thrown away any sense of pop-star pride and decorum, and embraced this opportunity to embody a sneering gay-camp nightmare. Towering over the diminutive Barnum thanks to the aforementioned shoes, gasping, scowling and doing double-takes over the glittered-up chorus boys, turning on a dime from patronizing to vicious, all the while singing like an angel... forget Grease, somebody book Clay Aiken a tour as Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror! (I've done almost two decades of Rocky Horror productions, and there are Franks who sing and Franks who pose. Aiken does both.)
So here I am at the end of this complicated, over-long review where I praised everything about a show except the show itself. Did I like it? Yes, I really liked it. Do I like Grease itself? I don't know- given the number of variables now involved in that statement, it's almost like saying "do you like food?" Would I recommend this show to other people? You bet your sweet pleather-clad ass I would. For all its ups and downs, evolutions and deevolutions over the years, there's still no fifties nostalgia vehicle like it; All Shook Up and Happy Days the Musical can't hold a candle. After almost fifty years, Grease is still the word.