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