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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

I don't take no crap from nobody —Sonny
Left ot Rt. Matt Wood, Bobby Conte Thornton, Taylor Louderman (Photo Credit: Jerry Dalia)
It's a well established fact that a critic's endorsement of a show is no guarantee of its success or popularity. My personal response to Grease for the past forty-two years has been one of tolerance. That the Paper Mill Playhouse has chosen to close the season that commemorated its 75th anniversary as one of the outstanding regional theaters in the country with this apparently widely adored popular 50s rock 'n' roll gives me pause to ask myself "What I may have been overlooking?" In a word . . . nothing.

Daniel Goldstein has directed this production with verve and the choreography by Joann M. Hunter has the required vitality — just about all the surface embellishments that make me realize that the show is not likely to ever get any better no matter what is done to it. The colorfully mobile settings based on the 2007 Broadway revival by Derek McLane and the period-perfect costumes based on those by Martin Pakledinaz for the same production are first rate. The current cast is attractive, but possibly not as youthful looking as one might hope, .considering that not one looks even close to being a teenager.

There is no denying that the Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey musical somehow found its way into the hearts of many, even as it made its way into American musical theater history. This, mostly by right of its original record-breaking Broadway run (February 14, 1972 - April 13, 1980) of 3,388 performances, a record that would stand until it was overtaken by A Chorus Line! in 1980.

A Broadway revival in 1994 featuring the then ubiquitous Rosie O'Donnell was also a success. It played 1,503 performances, longer than any revival up to that time. This ostensible homage to teens in heat (a far cry from Spring Awakening!) also spawned a highly successful film version that starred John Travolta, Olivia Newton John and Stockard Channing, all of whom were close to twice the age of the characters they played.

The best of the enhancements to this exuberantly danced staging is the addition of songs from the film version. Aside from the mind-numbing text, basically little more than lead-ins to the musical numbers, there is, at least, the saving grace of the tuneful score. The strategically integrated film music tunes "Grease," (by Barry Gibb), "Sandy," (by Scott Simon and Louis St. Louis, and "Hopelessly Devoted to You, ," and "You're the One That I Want," (by John Farrar).

The plot remains focused on the dating rituals of a group of typical high school teenagers during the Eisenhower years. I guess that means that all anyone has on his or her mind is singing, dancing, hot rods and sex. So what else is new? It certainly is not the plot in which Ryder High's various girl and boy gangs hang out in clicks making crude, rude, and vulgar remarks to and about each other. They are supposed to remind us of what boys and the girls had uppermost on their minds in the 1950s, like making out, breaking up and making up. The authors certainly had their audience pegged. Grease! takes place during a time before racial lines were crossed, a time when the only mix was between the hoods and the nerds, the jocks and the jerks, the sluts and the snobs.

The basic tastelessness of the show seems to have been toned down in favor of a more concerted effort to focus on the bouncy songs and energetic dances coming at us with breakneck speed. The songs may be corny and trite, but they do have melody in their favor. The dances may be hokey, but the engaging performers seem to be giving their all to the cause despite the fact that too many look too old for their roles. A minimum of self-mockery in the performances is a plus. Even Donna English, as Miss Lynch the no-nonsense teacher, offers clues that a human being resides somewhere in the halls of Rydell High.

The two principals Bobby Conte Thornton (Danny) and Taylor Louderman (Sandy) go through their paces nicely without setting the stage ablaze. Louderman, who starred on Broadway in Bring It On: The Musical , plays the virginal Sandy, who learns how to be popular in her first year at Ryder High. She does this by joining the Pink Ladies, learning to smoke, having her ears pierced (make that one ear), and getting her heart broken a couple of times, as reflected in such endearing treacle as "Hopelessly Devoted to You, ," and "It's Raining on Prom Night." Louderman is pert and perky, sings well and offers proof that a summertime romance with Danny has its ups and downs when the school term begins.

Thornton, who is making his Paper Mill debut as greaser Danny the leader of the gang that call themselves T-Birds, dances with the spirit of a cool teen and keeps up admirably with the more noticeably dynamic dancing of the ensemble, and his singing voice is quite good. Morgan Weed has a harder time carrying off the faux sophisticated Rizzo. She definitely looks like graduation from high school is in the distant past, but is redeemed with her amusing take on "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" and with a nicely emotionalized "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." We are certainly as relieved as she is when she announces that her menstrual cycle is back on track. So much for tension.

Standout among the T-Birds is Shane Donovan as the tough-talking Kenickie who revs up his hot rod with "Greased Lighnin' ," one of the cleverest numbers in which his grey old heap of junk is transformed into a shiny red Thunderbird convertible. Also fine are Joey Sorge, as Vince, who leads the company in a rousing "Born to Hand-Jive" and Sean Patrick Doyle as the nerd Eugene. Aside from Rizzo, The Pink Ladies, as played with individuality run amok by Leela Rothenberg, Tess Soltau, and Dana Steingold deliver most of the musical's brainless blathering with skill and determination.

Matt Wood and Rothenberg are appealing as the "Mooning," pudgy lovers, and Robin De Jesus has a fine musical moment making the most of those "Magic Changes" with his guitar. There are laughs generated by " Beauty School Dropout, ," in which Frenchie (Steingold), and a male teen angel (Telly Leung) partake in a fantasy amid a bevy of celestial beauticians with their hair in rollers.

By the time, Grease gets to the rousing prom night dance, you will most likely have to admit that there are probably worse things that you can do than get "Shakin' at the High School Hop. "

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed by Daniel Goldstein
Choreography by Joann M. Hunter

Cast: Tommy Bracco (Sonny), Matt Wood (Roger), Robin De Jesus (Doody), Shane Donovan (Kenickie), Leela Rothenberg (Jan), Morgan Weed (Betty Rizzo), Tess Soltau (Marty), Dana Steingold (Frenchy), Donna English (Miss Lynch), Eloise Kropp (Patty), Sean Patrick Doyle (Eugene), Taylor Louderman (Sandy), Bobby Conte Thornton (Danny), Joey Sorge (Vince), Brad Simmons (Johnny), Kat Nejat (Cha Cha), Telly Leung (Teen Angel), Gillian Munsayac, Kat Nejat, Kevin Santos (Students)
Scenic Design: based on Derek McLane's sets for 2007 Broadway revival
Costume Design: based on Martin Pakledinaz's costumes for 2007 Broadway revival.
Lighting Design: Charlie Morrison
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Orchestrations: Christopher Jahnke
Music Director: Brad Simmons
Production Stage Manager: Andrea Cibelli
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
(973) 376-4343
Tickets: $27 to $98
Performances: Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 pm; Thursday, Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 and 7:30 pm
From 05/28/14 Opened 06/01/14 Ends 06/29/14
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 06/1/14
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