August 2006

Book, Music & Lyrics by Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey

Directed by Rochelle Douris • Choreography by Christine Tavares • Musical direction by Jordann Zaza

August 8 – 20, 2006The Bluma Appel TheatreToronto
Musical Teen Angst in The Atomic Age
by Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
It is universally acknowledged that Grease — Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s nostalgic, musical teen-romp set in the 1950’s — is a perennial international hit. Not only does this charming and energetic musical boast one of the longest runs on Broadway (including several notable revivals — the most recent of which featured Rosie O’Donnell), but it has also given birth to the careers of present-day luminaries such as John Travolta, Patrick Swayze, Marilou Henner and Alan Paul (one fourth of the incomparable vocal group, The Manhattan Transfer). For the past thirty years, Grease has been relentlessly presented by regional theatres, touring companies, schools and community theatres throughout the world, and has been translated into every conceivable language from Japanese to Zulu.

The big-budget film version, which starred Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, Stockard Channing and Eve Arden is one of the most successful movie musicals of all time. It also featured several additional hit songs written specifically for Olivia Newton-John by composer Jon Ferrar (“Hopelessly Devoted” and “You’re the One That I Want”). The unfortunate film sequel, “Grease 2”, was an unmitigated disaster, with the exception of providing the film debut of a then-unknown Michelle Pfeiffer.

The global nature of the show’s appeal (which includes baby boomers and non-boomers alike) may lie somewhere in the strong nostalgic attraction of a simpler time, when teens were excited about the high school dance, 'went steady' and experimented with cigarettes and alcohol, as opposed to today’s adolescent pastimes of taking ecstasy, cocaine and exploring kinky cyber-sex. The musical score of Grease captures the harmonically uncomplicated and yet emotionally charged popular music of its day. Early Rock ‘n Roll is a hybrid musical form, with its roots in American Gospel music. It remains a highly accessible and non-threatening style of music. In the 1950’s Rock ‘n Roll was perched on the cusp of tremendous social changes yet to come, including the advent of multi-media entertainment, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the redefinition of sexual roles within Western culture.

The fine production currently on stage at The Bluma Appel Theatre is presented by Escape Productions, and prodigiously directed by Rochelle Douris. The show is beautifully cast and staged (although in all honesty, several members of the company seem to be a bit long in the tooth to play high school students — no matter how many times they may have been left back). The cast sings its heart out with pitch-perfect and finely tuned group and solo vocals. Veteran Christine Tavares’ choreography is inspired, and effectively showcases the considerable dancing skills of the talented cast, as well as preserving the authentic flavour of the 50’s. Musical Director Jordann Zaza has also assembled a compact and tight five-piece instrumental unit that more than handles the demands of the score. As the musical ensemble is on stage throughout the production, it’s a big plus that the band members also strongly resemble a high school combo…right down to the small red bowties!

The action of the play takes place in and around the mythical Rydell High, presumably somewhere in the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. As the local teen radio station is called “WAXX — The Big 50”, we know that the show’s setting has to be somewhere east of The Mississippi (in the States, all television and radio stations west of the Mississippi begin with “K” for Kaiser, and East of the great river they begin with “W” for Westinghouse). In the first act of the play, the actors were freely displaying a potpourri of eastern American accents, harkening anywhere from Brooklyn to Paramus, New Jersey and on to Boston. Perhaps some uniformity would have been a good idea or, failing that, no accents at all. The set design embodied all of the necessary elements, including the de rigueur center-stage platform, moveable shell of a classic T-Bird (a key aspect of all of the productions of Grease that I have ever seen), as well as clever and entertaining projections of all things 50’s, which beautifully added to the necessary suspension of disbelief. I was particularly impressed by the vintage animated “Let’s All Go to The Lobby “ clip that signaled the intermission. Just hearing that familiar little tune, I was magically transported back to the drive-in movie theatre of my own nostalgia.

Sadly, the lackluster costumes by Veronica Scorrano did little to help the show. This was most obvious in the wardrobe of the female characters. One particular faux pas took place in the familiar “Pajama Party” scene, where the main female characters are seen in their nightclothes. Zoe Sweet as Rizzo was costumed in an over-sized men’s shirt, which was characteristic of the time, however the clearly visible control-top panty-hose were anachronistic, to say the least. Also inexcusable, during the show’s closing number, Megan Nuttall as Sandy took the stage in an unfortunate red ensemble with visible hemlines on her satin ‘Clam Diggers’.

Standouts in the production are Marlene Mastol Jones as the comedic, weight-challenged Jan, the stunning Lana Carillo as Marty (whose thrilling voice and performance lit up the stage), charismatic and athletic Kyle Young as Doody, the irrepressible Christine Stewart as Frenchy and the testosterone-laden Michael Bradley as Danny Zucco. This is an ensemble show, so although I have singled out these few performers, I must stress that there were literally no weak links in the chain. Each young actor showed himself or herself to be multiple threats — exceptionally talented as singers, dancers and actors. I have no doubt that these players have long and rewarding careers ahead of them, and experiencing them onstage in this charming production was a total delight.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
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