In an age where there are metal detectors at the doors to high schools, the juvenile delinquents of the '50s with their ducktail hairdos and leather jackets take on a nostalgic silliness. The musical Grease, recently rocking Rivertown Rep, tells the story of that Cold War adolescent world " which seems like both recent and ancient history at the same time.
Hoods and their girlfriends were not the predominant group at the high school I attended in New Jersey, but they had a way of making their presence felt. Having grown up in the '50s, I experienced these types firsthand, which may have made my reaction to Grease more complicated and ambiguous than the authors likely intended. The play is, after all, a lighthearted spoof.
What helped get me in the appropriate mood were some little kids in the Rivertown audience. One girl even wore a poodle skirt that she was proud to death of. If you saw the show through the eyes of these kids, there were no threatening social issues, just fantastic singing and dancing. Kids always have their eyes out for what's next in their lives and the freedom of the greasers and their chicks must have seemed like a joyful Sesame Street gone haywire. Also, the core of the play is a tangle of love. In fact, the characters often act like kids themselves.
In a sense, Grease is a soft-core version of West Side Story with the gangs and the romance, but not the tragic ending. Grease has a happy ending. Kind of. The leading lady, Sandy " or Maria or Juliet, if you will " gets her man by giving up her conventional morality and out-chicking the chicks.
The story takes place at Rydell High in 1959. One of the honchos among the hoods, a guy named Danny Zuko (J. Michael Tramontin), brags to his buddies about a summer romance at the beach. With this crowd, you have the feeling that there's more talk than action going on, but Zuko is smitten. Meanwhile, over in the cafeteria, the Pink Ladies " the tough-stuff girl gang equivalent of the hoods " are trading wisecracks when a new girl enters. Her name is Sandy Dumbrowski (Karen Ann Cox). She's the one Zuko fell for at the beach. From opposite sides of the stage, the two join in a love duet, 'Summer Nights." This is their musical balcony scene. Their destinies are entwined.
It may be too drastic to call Sandy a prude, but she is a proper young lady " a real Sandra Dee, as Betty Rizzo (Angela Papale), the most outspoken and brash of the chicks, sings sarcastically at one point. The chicks like to hang out in one of their bedrooms, put on make-up, smoke cigarettes, knock back Italian Swiss Colony Wine and listen to records or to the sleaziest of radio disc jockeys, Vince Fontaine (Greg DiLeo).
Meanwhile, the guys are out stealing hubcaps and the like. In one scene, a jalopy actually roars onstage and the guys celebrate it with 'Greased Lightning." It's worth pausing to note that, for all the nostalgia, this version of Grease is raunchier than anything I remember from the '50s. Romance and libido are equated with a freedom from understatement we've only come to know since MTV hit the airwaves. Some of the dances, imaginatively choreographed by Frannie Rosenberg, seemed more Peppermint Lounge than American Bandstand.
In any case, after many ups and downs between the various couples, everything wraps up swimmingly. Rizzo, who thought she was pregnant, gets her period. And Sandy ditches the Sandra Dee persona. She shows up in a black leotard with a crimson patent-leather belt and heels. She knocks Zuko's socks off.
You may have to be a child to take this happy ending as completely satisfying. True, the girl wins her man. She stoops to conquer, you might say. But her triumph does not seem to have a transforming effect on his delinquent ways.
Others in the large cast who brought joy to the slightly sordid romp were Lucas Harms, Keith Claverie, Danny Marin, Katie DelGiorno, Kristin Popich, Joe Seibert, Leslie Limberg and Megan Sauzer Harms. The live band was top notch. Under Gary Rucker's direction, the cast rocked and rolled with such brio, you felt like dancing in aisles yourself.
- Grease has nostalgic fun with otherwise difficult issues like teen pregnancy and high school gang activity.