Theater is going great guns right now -- trying to grab an audience that's just sobering up from New Year's Eve and will soon be staggered by Mardi Gras
At Le Petit, director-of-all-work Brandt Block has a rock-em and sock-em smash on his hands with a full-glitz Grease. The show, a send-up of the 1950s black-leather and duck-tail hairdo set, was a Broadway hit in 1972 and went on to become a big movie with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
At Le Petit, the excited pre-show audience gives off a cult vibe. But even stick-in-the-muds who aren't charmed by the antics of those adorable paragons of inarticulate nihilism that we used to call "hoods" will enjoy themselves once the music kicks up. For one thing, the cast is so bursting with talent and enthusiasm, they would have a tomb full of mummies swaying in their sarcophagi. The show is similar to Pump Boys and Dinettes, which has the joint jumping over at Rivertown Rep. Pump Boys is a spoof of C&W, just as Grease is a spoof of R&B. Both shows are affectionate tributes that win you over with their songs and performances. But both also belittle the real thing, somehow.
Nothing makes this clearer in the case of Grease than a numinous apparition of the real thing in the flesh -- or, more precisely, in ankle-length white fur ("You wouldn't believe how many Muppets had to die to make this coat!"). Namely, New Orleans' own Frankie Ford -- who displays an old-pro worldliness, a droll command of the stage and a way with a song that is both disciplined and electrifying. In the same vein, Roy Haylock, appearing as radio DJ Vince Fontaine, strides onto the stage in glittering lapels and pegged puddle jumpers to emcee the audience-participation dance contest and brings down the house with an impromptu rapid-fire wit that reveals, by comparison, how plodding and banal the written text is.
Grease is the story of a well-brought-up new girl in town, Sandy (Amanda Zirkenbach), who had a summer romance with a Rydell High student named Danny Zuko (Matthew Ragas). Danny, it turns out, is the honcho of a greaser gang (Brian Peterson, Travis Resor, and C. Patrick Gendusa). Sandy is dying to be accepted by the accompanying tough-stuff girl gang (Jessie Terrebone, Kelly Hirling Fouchi, Emily Antrainer and Casey Leigh Thompson). In the end, she stoops to conquer. Cool and sexy at last, she gets her hood. Lucky her! Vee Plauché is the fussy, uptight teacher and Mat Grau is the goofy intellectual nerd, while Anita Landry gives us the good-time girl, Cha-Cha DiGregorio.
A smashing set by Bill Walker frames the extravagant costumes of Cecile Casey Covert and imaginative choreography of Jauné Buisson.
Meanwhile, community theater in the root sense of the term got a workout at the Neighborhood Gallery Theater with I Got A Home by Shirley Graham. Graham was a bigger-than-life figure who studied music composition in Paris in the '20s, ran the Chicago Federal Theater Project in the '30s, married W.E.B. DuBois in the '40s, became a citizen of Ghana in the '50s, and finally settled in Egypt, where she wrote several books.
I Got A Home is a run-of-the-mill domestic comedy that turns on the expectations aroused in an African-American family by the imminent arrival of a relative who supposedly received an large inheritance from the movie star for whom she worked. Director Mia Kristin Smith (who also took a major role) assembled a game cast, featuring Danielle Elena Edinburgh, Joseph Harris, Linda Merritt, Levy Davis, Frank Davis, Edwin Burke and Kevin Jones Jr.
The Neighborhood Gallery has sometimes given us polished productions, like the 2002 Valley Song. I Got A Home served a different function. This was a roughhewn, hands-on learning experience. And as such, it had moments of considerable charm.
Finally, a quick nod to Sweet Charity at the Jefferson Performing Arts Society. Cynthia Owen was in fine voice, with fettle to match, as the gullible, love-hungry masochist who feels life has something better to offer than taxi-dancing and giving all her money to heartless gigolos. The songs, some of which are memorable, were well sung. The book (by Neil Simon and based on a Fellini film, Nights of Cabiria) is stunningly false and vapid. Here, director William McCrary might possibly have helped by making some of the moments more real. Though, in fact, I'm not sure there's any "there" there.
Angie Joachim was a stylish comedienne as upscale Ursula. Chris Wecklein showed comic flair as claustrophobe Oscar Lindquist. I confess I couldn't force myself back after intermission. Sweet Charity doesn't manipulate, it strangulates.
- Sandy (Amanda Zirkenbach) and Danny (Matthew Ragas) do the crazy hand jive in Le Petit's production of Grease.