By George Basler
The SRO Productions III’s staging of Grease, which opened this past weekend (Oct. 27-29), sets up a nostalgic theme even before the musical begins.
Audience members entering the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City are greeted by cast members in full costumes welcoming them to a reunion of Rydell High’s Class of 1959. They even hand out name tags.
The audience then enters a set designed to resemble a high school gym, complete with basketball hoops at either end.
While the reunion concept is dropped after the school begins, it establishes the expectation of a fun evening. An energetic and engaging cast, directed by Scott Fisher, works hard to deliver on this expectation. Their efforts are successful most of the time because of performances that are skillful and entertaining.
Even their best efforts, though, can’t disguise the fact that Grease, despite some catchy songs and humorous moments, is far from a great show. The plot is meandering and muddled, and the air begins to come out of the balloon in the second act. The musical had a long run of Broadway, but one suspects that had less to do with quality, and more to do with the producers’ strategy to parade a series of celebrity stars through the roles (Rosie O’Donnell, Brooke Shields and Mickey Dolenz come to mind).
Creators Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey based the show on their high school experiences in the late 1950s. Set in Rydell High School (a tip of the hat to early rock ‘n’ roll star Bobby Rydell), the action centers on a group of working-class teenagers known as “greasers” and their equally tough female counterparts, the Pink Ladies. The music and lyrics borrow heavily from early rock ‘n’ roll while the book touches on, but never really develops, issues of the day, such as gang violence and teen pregnancy.
The first productions reportedly were raw and aggressive, but subsequent stagings (including SRO’s) have sanded off the hard edges and made Grease a romanticized paean to high school life in the 1950s.
The main plot theme is the boy-meets-girl relationship between “good girl” Sandy (Kaitlin Pearson) and “bad boy” Danny (Roy Santa Croce), the de facto leader of the Burger Boys “greaser” gang.
The two performers play well off each other, something that is clearly evident in their opening number “Summer Nights.” Pearson has a pleasant singing voice and the ability to play sweetness without being saccharine. Santa Croce has a suitably jaunty and “cool” demeanor and does a terrific job singing his big number, “Alone at the Drive-In Movie,” in the second act.
Sandy and Danny hardly dominate the musical, however. They disappear for much of Grease, giving center stage to the other characters who get to perform a series of tuneful songs that are really the core of the SRO production.
One standout is “Mooning,” sung by Amanda Blake as one of the Pink Ladies, and Josh Wahl as a Burger Boy. Blake sparkles as the food loving Pink Lady, and Wahl is equally funny as the Burger Boy who likes to drop his pants.
Another standout number is “Freddy, My Love,” sung by Megan Longo, who pines for her absent boyfriend, a Marine. Longo is joined by her backup singers, the other Pink Ladies.
The main strength of the SRO production, though, is its ensemble numbers, credited to five different choreographers. The numbers, which evoke the dance crazes of the late 1950s, are vibrant and designed to be real crowd pleasers, which they are.
Unfortunately, Grease’s second act is a bit of letdown. What had been lively in Act 1 becomes a bit tedious in Act 2 as the Burger Boys and Pink Ladies begin to wear out their welcome.
One problem is that the act’s opening number, “Shakin’ at the High School Hop,” goes on too long and stops the already-thin plot dead in its tracks. Another problem is that the popular “Hopelessly Devoted to You” comes out of nowhere. While it’s capably sung by Pearson, there is no set-up for her performance, perhaps because the song was written for the movie, not the stage show.
There are strong points in this act, however. One is the aforementioned “Alone at the Drive-In Movie,” sung by Santa Croce. Another is “Beauty School Dropout,” featuring Annie Fabiano as Frenchie, a Pink Lady who is flunking out of cosmetology school. Fabiano is joined by Teen Angel, Mari Perez, and a chorus of other angels outfitted in hilariously cheesy outfits. The song is campy fun and one of the top numbers in the show.
Grease takes a serious turn toward end when Rizzo (well-played by Jenn Crawford), the toughest and most sarcastic Pink Lady, reveals she might be pregnant. Crawford belts out her big song, “There are Worse Things I Could Do,” in a heartfelt and convincing fashion.
But this plot point is dropped immediately. Instead, Rizzo’s “confession” prompts Sandy to have a sudden personality change. She drops her “good girl” persona and transforms herself into a sex kitten to win Danny’s love. The transformation makes no sense, to put it mildly, and exists only to set up a rousing final dance number that features the entire whole cast. In the era of Me Too, it’s a dated contrivance.
Not that the audience at the SRO performance I saw seemed to mind. They applauded loudly throughout the show and were clearly enjoying themselves. And maybe that’s the whole point of Grease. The musical, despite its shortcomings, delivers fun. The SRO production does a solid job of conveying this fun and delivering a good time. The production might not deserve an A, but it merits a solid B+.
IF YOU GO: SRO Productions III will perform
Grease Nov. 3-5 at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 48 Willow St., Johnson City. The Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m.; the Sunday performance is at 2:30 p.m. Tickets at $25 can be ordered at SRO’s website, www.sroproductionsonline.com.