nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 22, 2007
Contrary to popular belief, the new Broadway revival of Grease does not signal the end of Western civilization as we know it. Instead, it shows the power of democracy in action. This is, after all, the production whose two leads were handpicked by the nationwide television viewership of the talent search reality show, Grease: You're the One That I Want! And, judging from the thunderous ovation that greets the two winners, Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, whenever they are on stage, the viewing public is happy with their choice. One may be forgiven for momentarily thinking that they're at something as monumental as a Beatles reunion concert when the house lights first go down: that's how crazy the audience goes.
It turns out, however, that the people have chosen wisely. Simply put, Crumm and Osnes are good. Acting-wise, singing-wise, and dancing-wise, they've got skills, and they're both very likable. Playing the romantic leads Danny Zuko and Sandy Dombrowski, these two relative newcomers show they've got what it takes to headline a big Broadway show, which is the whole gimmicky point of this enterprise.
This is a good thing because... well, because we're talking about Grease here. What else can be said about Grease at this point? It long ago cemented its place in the pop culture pantheon, and shows no signs of losing its popularity. No matter what one thinks of the score, there's no way not to hum along or tap one's foot. Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's ersatz-1950s pop songs are relentlessly catchy, if nothing else. (Four songs from the 1978 movie version—"Grease," "Hopelessly Devoted to You," "Sandy," and "You're the One That I Want"—have been added to this production for good measure.)
But viewing Grease through adult eyes for the first time made me wonder about its enduring appeal. This story of outcast greasers and bad girls at 1959 Rydell High School defies logic at every turn, and it's a testament to the show's unexplainable charm that no one has thought to question it since its debut 35 years ago. Are we actually supposed to believe that goody two-shoes Sandy and bad boy Danny are meant to be together? She keeps talking about how sweet he was when they met during summer vacation (a side of him that the audience never sees), but once school starts Danny gives in to peer pressure and forsakes Sandy in order to maintain his hepcat street cred.
Which, in my mind, begs the question: why are we supposed to root for this girl as she tries to win over a guy who acts like he doesn't give a crap about her? This isn't my idea of a heart-warming love story. It isn't until Sandy adopts the trappings of a bad girl (which are completely antithetical to everything she's about) that Danny finally gives her the time of day. Personally, I kept waiting for her to give him a swift kick in the ass. But there's none of that here as Grease perpetuates the not-quite-a-myth of good girls falling for bad boys. Yuck.
Another shocking thing about Grease is how brazenly wanton it is. The show glorifies under-age drinking, cutting class, disregard for authority, smoking, teenage pregnancy, and a horde of other frowned-upon adolescent practices as good ol' nostalgic shenanigans. This is supposed to be a wholesome, feel-good Broadway musical that one can bring the whole family to?! If that's the case, then it shows the mainstream theatergoing public to be more progressive (and subversive) than either I thought or they themselves may know.
Despite my misgivings about the show itself, Grease gets an energetic and polished production. Kathleen Marshall directs and choreographs with veteran flair and showmanship. She is aided mightily by Derek McLane's ingenious Polly Pocket-influenced sets, and Paul Huntley's nicely over-the-top hair and wig design. Musical director Kimberly Grigsby aerobically conducts the tight house band from their perch atop a catwalk overlooking the stage: she is constantly in motion and looks like she's always about half a hip-shimmy away from pole-dancing. And there are some nice scene-stealing turns from Susan Blommaert (Miss Lynch), Jeb Brown (Vince Fontaine), Stephen R. Buntrock (Teen Angel), Robyn Hurder (Marty), Jose Restrepo (Sonny), and Kirsten Wyatt (Frenchy).
The high point of this production, however, is the audience's unconditional enthusiasm. They absolutely adore Crumm and Osnes, and look and sound like they're having the time of their lives. Their energy is so contagious that I didn't even hate myself the next morning for kind of enjoying Grease. Chalk it up, once again, to the show's inexplicable charm: it steamrolls logic under the magical guise of musical theatre pizzazz. This is, indeed, the show that audiences want. Grease is the word, and the public has spoken.