Grease hasn’t aged well
If you are of a certain age, you probably loved Grease when the movie came out in 1978. Better yet, maybe you had a chance to see the stage version after it opened on Broadway in 1972. I was lucky enough to see both the movie and the Broadway tour in 1978. Fun fact: I wrote my first theatre review when Grease’s Broadway tour came to London, Ontario’s Centennial Hall in November 1978. My review was published in the University of Western Ontario’s Gazette, 39 years ago! I loved the show, but I was highly critical of the acoustics in Centennial Hall. People paid $9.50 a ticket, and couldn’t hear most of the speaking and singing.
But let’s get back to the production of Grease, now on stage at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre, thanks to a new producer, Irregular Entertainment. The audience is made up of those people of a certain age, who were in their teens and early twenties in 1978. Yet I have the feeling that this production is trying too hard to attract a younger audience: It is just a little raunchier than it needs to be.
Let’s face it – in hindsight, what was funny in 1978 is no longer funny. The story of Grease isn’t a great one. Danny and Sandy meet during the summer and apparently like each other. When they meet up again, Danny is all swagger and rude to Sandy. He’s happy to have rumours spread about her “putting out”. Crude jokes and bullying abound. In fact, bullying is glorified in the way Rizzo treats Sandy and the members of the Pink Ladies gang. The guys pick on the nerd, Eugene. Danny practically assaults Sandy at the drive-in, and she has to run away from him. Later, to win him back, she must go against her grain, switch to trampy clothes, and take up smoking. Frankly, this is not the message we want teenagers to hear.
But Grease’s saving grace is the music. The tunes are catchy and very danceable. The choreography in this production saves the show. The best scene is the “Born To Hand Jive” with lively dancing, great coordination, and amazing energy. It’s spellbinding when all the students sit on the gym bleachers and hand jive together. Similarly, the male cast members have incredible energy in “Greased Lightnin’”. The outstanding dance is probably due to the fact that director Josh Prince comes with an impressive resume as the choreographer of two Broadway hits.
The show opens with some promise – an a capella version of “Grease is the Word” gets our attention. But unfortunately, the rest of the show does not stand up vocally.
There are some very positive performances. Tess Benger nearly steals the show as cheerleader Patty Simcox. She has excellent comedic timing and delivers the funny stuff perfectly. Darcy Stewart has great stage presence as the Cha Cha DiGregorio, the dancer who crashes Rydell High from another school.
Michael De Rose is good as Vince Fontaine, the sleazy TV star, and Henry Firmston as Doody offers an enjoyable surprise when he starts singing off key, then switches into a smooth voice for “Those Magic Changes”. Stephanie Pitsiladis has great fun in the role of the teacher, Miss Lynch.
Special shout-out goes to ensemble member and dance captain, Sarah Vance: as always, she is a standout and I enjoy watching her dance at every opportunity.
Unfortunately the lead roles don’t measure up. Janel Parrish (better known for her role in TV’s Pretty Little Liars) as Sandy does not have the powerful voice needed for her solo performances. Dylan S. Wallach as Danny lacks authenticity and comes across as a caricature. He doesn’t command the stage as one would expect of Danny. Unfortunately, there is no chemistry between Sandy and Danny either.
Katie Findlay (another TV actor, who appeared in How to Get Away with Murder) plays Rizzo. While she has the required attitude, she doesn’t give us any reason to like Rizzo and the comedic timing isn’t there. Nor do we see any hint of vulnerability when she is worried she might be pregnant. In general, the acting chops of the three key characters seem lacklustre.
Every year, Sheridan College and Randolph Academy are graduating gifted musical theatre students, trained specifically for the live stage. Why the need to fill the lead roles with TV actors? Let’s showcase our home-grown talent, which in this production, upstages the imports.
If the use of TV actors is to draw in a younger crowd for Grease, I question the motive. Just give us good triple-threats and all ages will enjoy it.
Photo right: The program from the Broadway Tour of Grease in 1978, with my first theatre review, typed on an Underwood for the UWO Gazette.
Photo left: Cast of Grease –“ Born to Hand Jive”
Grease continues at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto until December 10. Visit https://greaseonstage.com for tickets.
Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed and choreographed by Josh Prince
Musical direction by Elizabeth Baird
Performed by Janel Parrish, Dylan S. Wallach, Katie Findlay et al.
Produced by Irregular Entertainment
Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge St., Toronto
November 1 to December 10, 2017 Note: extended to January 7, 2018
Reviewed by Mary Alderson