Grease: "It's got groove it's got meaning" 14 November 2017.
by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Cylla Von Tiedemann
The musical Grease has been through at least three major transformations. First, the scrappy and raunchy satire on '50s mores and '50s nostalgia. Second, the glossy disco campfest that was the Allan Carr movie. And third, a combination of the two that has mutated into innumerable high school productions, celebrity career resuscitation vehicles, watered-down Broadway revivals, television specials, and amateur theatre money-makers. All three incarnations have been massive crowd-pleasers.
The production of Grease now playing in Toronto lifts from all three in an attempt to grapple with a beloved contemporary classic with a problematic core. This production is lively and flashy with a game cast belting songs that the audience happily sings along with. But, to its credit, it also attempts to reference back to the original version where the celebration of toxic masculinity and feminine sexual manipulation was satirized instead of being glorified.
This Grease begins with a gorgeous acapella rendition of the Bee Gees-penned title track from the film. It is a complete cocktease as the audience sits on tenterhooks, waiting for the beat to kick in and the party to begin. Instead the luscious hooks are unadorned and the drivel of the lyrics is laid bare. The boys' bravado and posturing is exposed, and while sensual and evoking a fondly, falsely remembered past, it signals that they are not the toughs, the greasers, they pretend to be. The technique is echoed, in an entirely opposite fashion, by the girls who become defiant, again in sweet strong unaccompanied song, before they willingly submit to their subjugation disguised as success.
From there it is hit and miss. For every insightful smart flourish— "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" not only expresses a character but also rips the door off the '50s Hollywood closet, referencing back to the masochistic macho homoerotic bonding between the boys who prefer their own company to that of the Pink Ladies—there is spectacle for spectacle's sake, because after all, people have paid good money to be entertained by flashy song and dance. Static satirical choreography lambasting conformity (which unfortunately is not as funny or compelling as that sounds) is followed by a crowd-rousing number utilizing a microphone stand as a limbo bar and some very fancy '50s-inspired footwork. It is a split personality approach that, if it had time to gel, might just achieve brilliance.
Dylan S Wallach plays Danny Zuko and he is charming and handsome enough to make a tragically repugnant character a credible leading man. He looks great when he is inexplicably stripped to his boxers—it appears to be an attempt to soften the moment when Sandy embraces her female empowerment through tits and ass, by having her transform him into a soulless suit and tie man, but if it is gratuitous, it is equally welcome—and he has a great voice. At least I think he does. Wallach let loose some stunning vocals, but the sound was so erratic that he was often lost in the mix, buried under the muzaky soft-jazz orchestra arrangements. The curious flatness of the entire production, which has all the other elements in place to knock the audience's socks off, is, I suspect, due to microphones cutting out mid-song, starting up a few notes into a melody, or simply not being there. It is puzzling in a production that otherwise looks like a lot of money went into making it slick and pleasing.
Poor Janel Parrish as Sandy has to be given the benefit of the doubt for her failure to stop the show with "Hopelessly Devoted to You." If she was hearing as little on stage as the audience was out front, it is no wonder that she resorted to frequent malaise-inducing descending melisma, or dropping the end of phrases, in order to avoid bum notes. Katie Findlay as the much-loved Rizzo nails her rendition of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" but, inexplicably, sings it directly to Parrish instead of sending it soaring out to the audience. And spunky Hailey Lewis takes centre stage only to have her voice completely disappear. Michael De Rose (My Dinner with Casey Donovan) suffers the same fate despite being handed two big numbers to shine in, with his seedy Teen Angel getting the last laugh through sheer comic subversion.
Matt Magnusson as Kenickie sells the innuendo of "Greased Lightning" with a sexy swagger and confident posturing. It helps that the car is a great prop and is used inventively. And that the men bump and grind in Elvis gyrations with pelvic thrusts that put the focus on Magnusson's impressive physicality. Stephanie Pitsiladis strolls away with the biggest laughs in a number of comic roles, and Darcy Stewart is more Rita Moreno than skank as Cha Cha. The entire cast is energetic, attractive, and fills the just-too-small stage of The Winter Garden Theatre with continual movement and eye candy. And for a sing-a-long confection with a poison pill core, that can be enough.
Grease runs until Sun, Dec 10 at The Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge St. greaseonstage.com