August 22, 2007

"Grease" Isn't Slick Enough

There's a reoccurring dream that I have: I'm back in my old high school and no matter what I do or where I go, I can't get out. That's kind of how I've felt the last couple of weeks after seeing the totally sophomoric off-off Broadway show Idol: The Musical, both versions of the Disney Channel’s High School Musical and now the new revival of Grease that opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Sunday. Broadway seems obsessed with high school too. There are the socially conscious high schoolers in Hairspray, the sexually repressed ones in Spring Awakening, the overachieving bunch in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the slightly older sorority sisters of Legally Blonde and those witchy schoolmates in Wicked. Who says Broadway isn't trying to reach out to the youth market?

As anyone who has been to high school knows, popularity is the prime currency for success. And this production of Grease arrives with a built-in clique. Its stars were chosen by viewers who tuned into the NBC reality show, "You're the One That I Want" and phoned in votes for their favorites. "You're the One.." wasn't a big hit, as TV shows go, but it was big enough that the stage show now has a reported $15 million advance. Audience members at the performance my sister, niece and I attended reveled in being part of the in-crowed, mouthing the words to the songs and mobbing the souvenir shop, where T shirts went for $25 a pop—cash only, no credit cards.

The 21 year-olds who won the talent contest—Max Crumm and Laura Osnes—aren't bad. He has a goofy charm that doesn't really fit the character of the sexy greaser Danny Zuko but is nonetheless winning. She is appropriately sweet as goody girl Sandy Dumbrowski and nails her songs. But neither is ready to anchor a show and even though their castmates are more experienced (Kirsten Wyatt as Frenchy, the ditzy beauty-school dropout, and Jeb Brown as the lecherous radio DJ Vince Fontaine are particularly good) and nearly everyone on the creative team headed by director Kathleen Marshall has won, or at least been nominated for, a Tony Award, this Grease has an amateur feel about it. The best part for me was watching conductor Kimberly [not Karen as originally posted] Grigsby lead the onstage orchestra. Grigsby has a lithe swagger that even Rizzo, the show's bad girl, would envy and she danced and rocked her way through the entire evening. My husband K, the pit musician, has never played with Grigsby but some of our friends have and a few have been put off by what they call her show-off antics but she brought a sizzle to Grease that everyone else on stage lacked.

Truth is, I've always been so-so about Grease. But it was the object of my sister Joanne's first crush on Broadway. She saw the original production the fall she turned 16 and couldn't stop talking about it and or singing the songs in the weeks that followed. Good big sister that I was, I gave her the original cast album for Christmas, which she played and played and played. Her passion didn't fade with time; in fact, it revved up with the 1978 movie version starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. And though Joanne has seen scores of Broadway shows over the years, Grease, like all first loves, continues to hold a special place in her heart. She wasn't thrilled by what she saw at the Brooks Atkinson. But my niece—her daughter—Jennifer was. It won't surprise you to learn that Jennifer was a faithful viewer of "You’re the One That I Want". Of course, at 27, she's also one of the ones that Broadway wants. And so, although critics and traditionalists have decried it, this probably won't be the last time American TV viewers get to play casting director for a Broadway show.


Anonymous said...

Kim Grigsby, not Karen. And I pity anyone who has to find the downbeat. (Though I agree, she can be fun to watch.)

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Great post!!

Anonymous said...

"...this probably won't be the last time American TV viewers get to play casting director for a Broadway show."

I'm kinda hopin' it makes producers think twice.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dear Broadway&Me:

I just saw the show myself. I promised myself I would go in with an open mind....

I found myself agreeing with you on just about every count.