Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ - June 2003

Review by John Kenrick

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions. All the photos below are by Gerry Goodstein, and are used here courtesy of Paper Mill)

Sandy and DannyJennifer Hope Wills (Sandy) is wooed at the drive-in by Andy Karl (Danny) in Paper Mill's Grease.

Long before the blockbuster movie version or Tommy Tune's overblown 1994 revival, Grease was an unpretentious, nostalgic look back at the 1950's that gave audiences a rowdy but utterly harmless good time. Paper Mill has brought this show back to something like its original intimate proportions, and the result is likely to keep audiences cheering this summer. Ticket sales have been so strong that the run has already been extended through July 27th – after three decades, Grease is still a potent, seat-filling crowd pleaser!

Those who remember the original stage version will find two major differences. This is the first NY area production to legally incorporate the four hit songs from the film (although I shudder to think how many amateur productions have used them over the years). "You're the One That I Want" certainly energizes the final scene, but the other tunes are not quite as theatrically effective. But audiences accustomed to the movie will be happy to hear these tunes, and they fit in with the original score.

The other big change is in the script. To placate the many schools and church groups that objected to the colorful language in the original, co-author Jim Jacobs has created a cleaner version of the book and lyrics, and this is the version Paper Mill has chosen to stage. I understand why, seeing as they aim for a family-oriented audience, but it is definitely less potent than the original. The bowdlerized lyric for "Greased Lightnin'" is silly, and the white trash high school characters wind up sounding frightfully harmless. Oh they still swear now and then – which only makes the revisions seem all the more unnecessary. What's the point of purified Grease?

grease.jpg (26822 bytes)Andy Karl leads the ensemble in the title song of Grease.

Mark S. Hoebee's direction strikes the right period spirit, and he deserves the credit for blending the film songs into the existing material so smoothly. Hoebee and co-choreographer Jeffrey Amsden keep the dances lively – although I wondered why the "Born to Hand Jive" didn't include any actual hand jive until its final moments. Gregory Poplyk's costumes look like they walked out of a 1950's class year book, and James Fouchard's juke box-like set has plenty of late deco glitz. F. Mitchell Dana's usually capable lighting design suffered from some heavy-handed backdrop lighting effects – deleting them would remove a needless distraction. Music director Vicki Carter keeps the songs percolating nicely – its always fun to get reacquainted with fun numbers like "Freddy My Love," "Those Magic Changes" and the giddy "We Go Together."

Those songs, and the rest of the deceptively catchy score are what have made Grease a lasting favorite. It surely isn't the plot, which follows the romantic misadventures of a dozen 1959 high school seniors. The resulting book is so episodic that even a professional production can seem to drag in spots. This staging is no exception, but I think a few more performances will do wonders to smooth out the pace.

Cast of GreaseThe ensemble of Paper Mill's revival of Grease.

There's no faulting the cast, who have more than enough talent to keep this little roadster of a show purring like a Thunderbird. Andy Karl, who stole Paper Mill's delightful Romero and Bernadette earlier this season, is perfect as Danny Zuko, with a sweet tenor voice and loads of sex appeal. At a few key moments, Karl intentionally invokes memories of John Travolta – and is such a good performer in his own right that it comes across as witty homage, not imitation. In fact, Andy Karl is the kind of talented hunk audiences can't get enough of these days – Broadway casting directors take note!

Jennifer Hope Wills plays the pure-hearted Sandy Dumbrowski with a bit too much maturity, but she pulls off her sexy conversion with delicious flair. Leslie Kritzer is sensational as Rizzo, turning "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" into a smoldering showstopper – and making this often misplayed character far more believable and effective than in any previous version I have seen. John Jeffrey Martin plays Kenickie with a boyish, Jerry Lee Lewis-like sense of glee, and Justin Bohon (who was so memorable as Will Parker in the Broadway's recent Oklahoma) is as delightful a Doody as you will ever see. In the rest of the ensemble, Benjie Randall as the rump-bearing Roger and Heather Jane Rolf as the food-loving Jan are comic standouts, and Brenda Cummings (as Miss Lynch) shares a hilarious bit of cigarette-hiding stage business with Clyde Alves (as the smarmy Sonny).

So while this production has some weak spots, Grease still offers plenty of fun. Summer is the perfect time to check out the charms of Millburn and catch a classic musical at Paper Mill. Like the song says, there are worse things you could do!

The extended run of this production ended on July 27, 2003

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