The Rydell High of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's "Grease" looks refreshingly different. But it sounds the same — for better and, sometimes, for worse.
The first show of the 61st season at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse visits the cliquey 1959 school setting for the third time on that stage. It's the same classic story: When another semester at Rydell begins, greaser Danny Zuko (Michael Notardonato) is stunned to find that his summer fling, Sandy Olsson (Heather Makalani), has transferred there. As Danny and Sandy try to reconcile his street criminal ways with her virtuous ones, his T-Bird friends and their Pink Ladies counterparts face many of the travails of their time: beauty school, unplanned pregnancy, fixing up an old car. And accompanying them, of course, is one of the most iconic soundtracks in musical theater, from "Summer Nights" and "You're the One That I Want" to "We Go Together" and "Greased Lightnin'."
If I had to guess, the casts of the 1983 and 1998 productions of "Grease" at Merry-Go-Round probably resembled the Italian-American faces of the 1978 John Travolta-Olivia Newton-John starrer. Most casts do. This season's opener, however, looks much more diverse. There are several performers of color, from the featured roles to the modest ensemble, and that makes this production of "Grease" not only more representational, but positively more modern. And spare me any lines about that same diversity being unrealistic: It's "Grease," so chill. (More on that later.)
Still, "Grease" is the word — so that cast nevertheless dons the leather jackets and cherry varsity letters of Rydell High. And from their wardrobe to the slick dos and bowtied curls atop their heads, the festival's visual game is polished as ever in “Grease.” The set is particularly dynamic, pairing a catwalk with window panels that director Igor Goldin puts to creative use for choreography and scene setting. There's even a real car, Greased Lightnin' itself, that’s carefully dollied onto the stage through one of those panels by a crew member wearing coveralls and motor oil.
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The cast does more than look their raging hormonal part, though. They smile, kick and hand jive their way through Phil Colgan’s choreography with youthful zip. They also sing their butts off, if only because the audience knows the lyrics so well that the cast risks being drowned out. Makalani’s wrenching turn on “Hopelessly Devoted” is the show’s musical highlight, but everyone has their moment, such as Travis Przybylski's Roger on the goofball ballad "Mooning." And the cast shares a certain comedic chemistry, even if Notardonato and Makalani struggle to spark a romantic one.
Maybe it was the sweat still glazing their faces, but Megan Kane and Nick Martinez think at …
That’s not really the fault of the leads, though. Because as a show, “Grease” just doesn't have that much meaning. It's got a '50s setting, which easily seizes the imagination of nostalgic American audiences, as well as an unrivaled collection of earworms. But after that, all "Grease" has is a weak story and queasy stereotypes. If Notardonato and Makalani can't sell their characters' romance, it's because said romance is kind of a junker. Sandy's arc, namely, is all over the road: She forgives Danny off-stage for winning the "High School Hop" with another woman and kissing her on the dais, then fights off his advances at the drive-in, then decides she just needs to loosen up and dress like him and his hoodlum friends? Did I miss something — or did "Grease"?
And therein lies the challenge of producing musical theater canon in our more culturally literate present. The festival can make the show's cast more diverse, and commendably so. But it's a taller order to make its story more coherent, or apparently, even to cut its cheap jokes about weight and sexuality. Because in "Grease," those bumps are part of the ride. Nostalgia for the show's setting has become nostalgia for the show itself, the kind that has to gloss over noxious lines like "Did she put up a fight?" Everything about the show just goes together like — well, you know.