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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Grease’

GREASE CHILDRENS

My word for “Grease” is OK.

On one hand, the new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production — the company’s annual all-ages community theater offering — includes some of the best choreographed numbers I’ve seen in a CMT show. (When the company performs the ecstatic first-act finale, “We Go Together,” which involves a flurry of hand-and-foot choreography, the precision and energy are remarkable.) There is fine singing throughout the production, including a few show-stopping moments. Vye Robinson’s scenic design and Trina Short’s costumes are strong. The live band is first-rate, with only a few balance problems. And when “Greased Lightning” makes an appearance, the car is a star. It should get its own dressing room.

On the other hand, I have some serious issues with how this production was cast, particularly the two leading roles. The lighting design doesn’t always work. While some ensemble numbers are excellent, a few — such as the iconic “Beauty School Dropout” — don’t have the impact they should. And the big climax of the show seems to just clunk into place, at least at the Saturday matinee I attended opening weekend.

The production continues through Sunday at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium.

Let’s get to the good stuff first, because that’s more fun. Director/choreographer Josh Montgomery uses a version of the show made popular in the 2007 Broadway revival, dropping some songs from the original 1971 production and replacing them with well-known songs from the 1978 movie. Thus, such tunes as “Sandy,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “You’re the One That I Want” and the title song are included. For the most part, these new songs work quite well, particularly for audiences expecting them from the movie. (The only one I think seems out of place is “Sandy,” which Montgomery moved to the very beginning of the show as a prologue. It stalls the show’s opening energy and slows down the audience’s introduction to the guys and gals of Rydell High School, an interlude that already includes a lot of exposition.)

A strong cast of veteran theater performers give the production an acting and vocal oomph. The Pink Ladies are uniformly good: Katharine Dorian excels as the world-wise Rizzo, with a heartfelt rendition of “There are Worse Things I Could Do.” Pearl Rhoads is an endearing Frenchy, Nicholle Debbas a beautifully voiced Marty and Heather Awbrey Glosier has some fun moments as Jan.

As the Burger Palace Boys, Max Debbas is a hoot as Roger, Jonathan Wheeler a kick as Kenicke, and Javier Padilla a goofy and eager Sonny. (Padilla’s enthusiasm on stage is infectious, and there’s one moment of his that really stood out for me, when his character gets booted out of the dance contest in “Born to Hand Jive.”) Highlights among the guys include a rousing “Greased Lightning” (with outstanding backup vocals). And Michael Watanabe, as Doody, is a standout, delivering with “Those Magic Changes” one of the strongest solos in the show. (He comes back later as the Teen Angel in a “Beauty School Dropout” that strains too hard for comic effect and feels a little subdued visually.)

Also strong is Daniel LaJune as an exceedingly elastic Eugene, the class nerd.

Now, let’s move on the show’s weaknesses.

The staging of the number “Grease is the Word” feels cumbersome, with a blocky, “Les Miserables”-wave-the-flag feel. Another number that doesn’t quite work: There’s a big moment at the end of the show that most of us already know about involving Sandy’s evolution from sweet, innocent youth into something a little sexier. I’m not sure if something went wrong at the performance I saw, but that big moment, and the ensuing song “You’re the One That I Want,” was anti-climactic.

Skylar Montierth’s lighting design doesn’t do what it should in terms of focusing the audience’s attention on the important action in several key scenes. In the cafeteria scene early on, for example, the dialogue bounces back and forth from one side of the stage to the other as the Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys (renamed the T-Birds for the movie) fill each other in on their summers. In the big dance contest in the second act, various characters weigh in on the chaotic scene before them. In both cases, it’s easy to lose these bits of primary action among everything else happening on stage, and there’s little help from the lights to direct our attention.

Then there’s the age issue.

To be blunt about it: Darren Tharp, who plays Danny, and Dorie Sanders, who plays Sandy, are in their mid-30s, and they are too old for these roles. Can you get away playing Danny and Sandy in your mid-20s? Yes. Mid-30s? Perhaps some actors could, but these two just didn’t work in the roles for me.

When I attend any community theater performance, I try to do so with blinders on when it comes to casting issues involving age. Most of the time, it isn’t difficult for me to look past those issues as I become absorbed in the production. Not this time.

I have great respect for the talents of Tharp and Sanders. They are both seasoned, first-rate performers, and I’ve seen them excel in various roles (Tharp as Max in “The Producers” and Sanders in “Beehive” come to mind.) Each has some fine vocal moments in “Grease.” But I wasn’t able to get over the awkwardness that results from having them play high school seniors. When Tharp is goofing around as Danny with the Burger Palace Boys, he comes across like a dad trying to goof it up with his sons. When Sanders as Sandy tries to offer comforting words to the pregnant Rizzo, there’s a maternal feel to the scene — even in her posture and the timbre of her voice — that’s hard to shake.

In “Grease,” you have to believe there’s a nice guy not far beneath the surface of Danny Zuko’s bad-boy persona. Tharp is fine at that aspect of the character. But I didn’t buy him as the bad boy — the too-cool-for-school delinquent, the youthful lady-killing Romeo, the slightly dangerous gang leader.

Sandy has to come across as innocent, but there also has to be a hint of rebellion there that makes us believe her transformation late in the show. Sanders doesn’t achieve this delicate balance between naive and worldly.

Granted, it’s not as if one actor is 15 years older than the other. (That would have been kind of creepy.) But I think the youthful opposites-attract chemistry between Danny and Sandy, which is all-important in the show, never seems believable because of the ages of the performers.

In fact, I don’t understand at all why CMT decided to stage “Grease” as its one all-ages production of the season when it’s a show about high-school seniors — with only two specific adult roles. It seems as if such a production would fit perfectly in as one of CMT’s 20-and-under shows.

Again, I applaud the wonderful choreography and great enthusiasm of this production. And I’ve never seen a better “We Go Together.” But overall, I just can’t say this “Grease” is the word.

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Pictured: Darren Tharp as Danny and Dorie Sanders as Sandy. Bee photo by Eric Paul Zamora.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Grease’"

Penny says:

I agree with you. I think they should have reversed the shows around. Made the all ages show A Chorus Line and Grease for the younger kids.

Janice says:

I agree with this review 100 percent, and I am glad you brought up the age issue. The casting of Danny and Sandy did not work. There was too much of a noticable age difference between them and the other members of the cast. I almost did not go to see the production because of that, but was ultimately glad that I did, because the rest of the cast was phenomenal. In particular, ALL of the Burger Palace Boys, Frenchie, Rizzo & Marty. The large musical numbers were great, the sets and “Greased Lighting” were cool, and the singing from everyone was lively and fun. I thought Javier Padilla, Max Debbas and Michael Watanable were the absolute stand-outs in this production, and Daniel LaJune stole the show!

Susan says:

I saw Grease on opening night and it was fantastic! I was thrilled to hear and see seasoned performers in the major roles. I had the opportunity to see a traveling professional version of Grease several years ago and the cast was around the same age as CMT’s actors. I had absolutely no issue with the age of the performers. Great! Great! Great production! Grease is the Word!!!

IN says:

We had a phenomenal time! We thoroughly enjoyed it!! Bravo to all the cast and everyone involved in creating a fantastic production of Grease!!

Joe says:

When i saw the cast list for this production I was extremely dissapointed. It is hard to watch a show that is supposed to have “high-school” aged kids in it when the two leads are over their 30′s. Especially with the fact of half of the cast ACTUALLY being in high-school it was too hard for Tharp and Sannders to fit in with them. The actual teenagers had the right mannerisms of teens while the two leads did not. All in all- poor choice on Josh’s side. He simply needs to have more confidence in the youth here in Fresno. It is called CHILDRENS Musical Theaterworks for a reason. This show was good but simply good have been better…better luck next time.

Joey says:

I too agree with Donald, it was evident that the two main characters were probably casted in those roles because of their experience and singing ability. However when you’re watching the show you feel badly and a bit awkward for the two main characters; especially Danny because it was simply not a good fit….”fit” being the operative word.

On the flipside, the cast all together was great, the ensemble dancers were awesome, the car was way cool and it was a fun show. Great Job CMT!

Daniel says:

Totally agree, great production, great costumes, amazing dancers, fun show but the lead characters? What were they thinking? Any other young girl or guy in the show could’ve done it

Susan says:

Dear Joe and Joey,
Really? Have you ever seen any other productions of Grease? Danny and Sandy were cast perfectly. The original movie cast leads were 29, 34, 30, 28, 32, 31 you get the picture- no teenagers. Grease IS the Word!!!

Sally says:

O.K. Susan the bottom line is “Danny” and “Sandy” are not believeable in these roles regardless of age. There is a very pretty tall blonde in the show that has a amazing voice and would have made a much better “Sandy” she is younger and has that stage appeal that the current characters are lacking. I have seen most of CMT shows and it seems as though Josh casted his friends and that wasn’t the best choice for this show being a musical cast of teens.

Becky Serrage says:

Its funny how everyone loved the movie yet all the cast were well over their 20′s. To bad Mr Munro keyed in on the ages and not what a GREAT Job they did

Chris says:

Ok “Sally” or whatever your real name is….you are clearly ignorant of the process of putting on a show! The director has a vision and it is his or her responsibility to put that show on stage. Who are you to say he should have cast one blonde over another? When you grow up you’ll see that just because you have an amazing voice doesnt mean you can walk in and get a role you really really want or that your friends think you should have gotten. Theater is a tough game and until you sit at the table, you never know what the director is thinking. By the way, its cast not casted!

Bethany says:

Instead of critiquing everyone’s age, why not actually critique the performance? Age has nothing to do with it, and I personally have never seen a production of Grease with teenagers as the leads, aside from when my high school did it.

Deebzy says:

oooo this is getting good!

Robert says:

Wow people sure do have a lot to say about others! I have attended Grease at CMT twice and will be back for a third time with people who are very excited to attend, after hearing about how professional and talented this current cast is. The nights I had the pleasure of seeing Grease not only did I enjoy it… the people around me were in awe the whole night! Jumping to their feet as the cast ended the show. As far as this ludicrous talk on “age”… growing up is something that happens with time, learning respect and the respect for others comes hand in hand with growing up. Some of these comments are very non-respectful and sound like they might come out of jealousy. Advise- Grow Up! Fresno GO SEE GREASE!! Your socks will be knocked off!!

Heather P says:

‘Fit’ is the best word one can use when discussing casting issues like age (and other issues not under the control of the actors). You could have a cast for Grease that is 27-32, like in the movie, but it can work because they all look the same age and resonate on the same wavelength. Same goes for casting adult shows with teenagers, as CMT does during the summer. The cast fits together well, even if they aren’t old enough for the roles yet.

But in a mixed age cast, the “one of these things is not like the others” problem can be a hindrance for some audiences. Peers may need to be matched with peers, and as Donald pointed out, at least they did this with Danny and Sandy.

Mixing ages in such an age-dependent show can be a risk. Lord knows I take the risk a lot with non-tradtional casting. But my first priority is deciding how well a cast fits together.

But sometimes, you don’t have the perfect fit, and you do what you can with the people you are blessed to work with…. And you roll the dice.

CL says:

Heather, that’s something very important to think about. Auditions are rough, and that’s not even discussing those auditioning for the role, but for the director.
Directors sit there with fingers crossed that that perfect Danny or Sandy walk up on stage and belts out and acts and dances and leaves them blind with the shine. It just doesn’t always happen. The director is left to A. cast the best of the bunch or B. call in favors. Sometimes one may think “Well why not that guy/girl?” Well, if that person had a conflict, couldn’t be there every performance and/or has shown a lack of commitment in the past….it gets sticky.
I do not envy the roles of directors. I’ve known Josh for years and the whole idea of him “Just casting his friends” is ludicrous.
As for the teenager comments. Folks, we are a hop skip and a jump from exit exams, school performances and plays, band trips, choir trips, end of the school year trips.
I think the thing working against Grease’s casting the most was the time slot.

Sally says:

Lets just appriciate all the hard work that goes into a production. The cast and crew and director give it their best with many hours of hard work and dedication and its a great show with lots of great talent. Just enjoy the moment and come see the show and support the arts.

Joseph Lucido says:

Look, I’m in the band that is in the show. I’ve in rock music my entire career, and this was my first time in this type of venue. It has been a spectacular opportunity to meet great people and see real musical professionals at work.

I’ve seen dozens of musicals before from the other side, and this is just as good or better as the ones I have seen.

I think some of the critics on this page like to hear themselves talk and are really stretching to find something negative to say. In the original movie, the age appearance of the characters was well into the 30′s. GET OVER IT! If the show is done well and entertaining, that’s the point. HELLO! This is the world of entertainment. People get too serious about this stuff and some live to just critique instead of just enjoy.

Hey, Donald, did you even see the crowd’s reaction? THAT is what counts in the end. Josh and the cast and crew have done a magnificent job with this. Take a step back and get over yourself.

Heather P says:

No doubt many people love the production. Even Munro said he enjoyed a lot of it. But he, the reviewer, and even some other audience members had a few quibbles. That is allowed.

Theater is actually NOT just entertainment. It is an artform. And the purpose of criticism (that IS Donald’s job) is to put the execution of the artform into a context. This role is vital for both audiences and artists as their tastes, discernment, and ability to perform grow and evolve.

My work has been poorly reviewed. It is gotten mixed reviews. And it has been well reviewed. I don’t always agree with the reviews Donald writes. But as artists and performers, we are called to try to learn something from each response we get– even if what we learn is to stand behind the choices we’ve made. We put the work out there, but we cannot control the response. Positive, negative or mixed, learning from feedback is the sign of maturing artists. Being defensive or dismissive of the feedback isn’t.

And, by the way, arts criticism and journalism is ANOTHER way of supporting the arts, believe it or not. It is a support that is rapidly disappearing from the world, unfortunately.

Linda D. says:

Donald, I think your review was spot on. I have seen the production twice now and love it but you make valid points. Thanks CMT for another outstanding production. Keep up the great work!

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