Edit: Due to insanely high demand, this show’s run has been extended to August 9! See www.lyricarts.org
During my years working in a professional theatre, I witnessed more performances of Grease in a few weeks than most people would see in three lifetimes. I got a little burnt out. I’ve turned down multiple invitations to see both stage productions and the film, because I just didn’t want to hear any more about Summer Lovin’ or Greased Lightnin’ . But when I heard about this summer’s version being staged by Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, I was intrigued. The Anoka theatre company promised a “grittier production” than usual; as director Christine Karki writes in her introduction in the program, “At its core, Grease is a teen anti-establishment musical… For many people… the 1950s was a time of real oppression and repression – a time of classism, racism and sexism.”
Although the script always includes a lot of sex, rock’n’roll, bullying, and general teenage anger and frustration, most productions I’ve seen gloss over the unhappier parts by dismissing them as teen angst and emphasizing the happy ending. Lyric’s production feels very different; everything seems more real. Clothes and hairstyles aren’t perfect, the sets look a little worn down, and more emphasis seems to be put on the dialogue and the feelings behind it than is typical. It’s not that this is all of a sudden a very grim show — you can only be so grim while singing songs like We Go Together and Born To Hand Jive, after all! It’s still Grease with all its great music and clever jokes, but it’s a little more real and a little more emotional. It brings you closer to the characters, and makes the plot feel like more than an excuse to string a bunch of great songs together.
One of the most important results of this interpretation is the way the audience views the Danny/Sandy romance. (Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know the story of Grease? Good girl Sandy Dumbrowski and bad boy Danny Zuko fall in love, but Sandy struggles to fit in with Danny’s friends; all of their friends struggle with romance, sex, pressure to be cool, grades, money, and careers during their senior year of high school.) Cool guy Danny Zuko – played by Jordan Oxborough with a fantastic blend of bravado and vulnerability – is more obviously into Sandy, despite her goody-two-shoes ways, and new girl in town Sandy Dumbrowski is less perfect-hair, flouncy-skirted angel, more confused, scared, awkward teenager, thanks to a believably awkward and earnest performance by Megan Fischer. The result? This is the first time I’ve seen Grease and really understood why Sandy voluntarily transformers herself from Shy Sandy to Sexy Sandy at the end. Because this Sandy is more timid and awkward, she seems to fit in less with the group of girls she hangs out with; she seems lonely and afraid to try anything new. She isn’t having any fun, and the reason her relationship with Danny isn’t working has less to do with Danny’s fear for his reputation, and more to do with their inability to communicate and her fear of stepping outside her comfort zone to meet him halfway. So, Sandy’s revelation that she has to change her ways seems to come from within, and her “Sexy Sandy” persona seems like it would more aptly be named “Confident Sandy” – she changes her style to try something new, not to get a boy’s attention. This really changes the whole feel of the Danny/Sandy story, and the entire ending. Bravo, says this feminist!
The stage production of Grease is really much more of an ensemble piece than the 1978 film version, and Rizzo in particular plays a significant role; kudos to Jill Iverson on an entirely sympathetic portrayal of a cocky teenager afraid to let the mask slip (and what a voice!). Similarly talented is Mike Tober as Rizzo’s sometimes-paramour, Kenickie, the tough guy who isn’t as much of a jerk as he wants people to believe. The entire cast is strong, and well-cast in their respective roles. In particular, it is gratifying to see a stage production that does not attempt to mimic the movie cast; it isn’t necessary, and frequently leads to unfavourable comparisons when stage performers aren’t exactly like their Hollywood counterparts. While I’m talking the movie, just a reminder that the stage production is actually noticeably different than the movie – some songs from the stage didn’t make it to the cinema, and the film producers added a few original songs. And speaking of audience warnings, although there isn’t an age restriction on the show it is recommended for 14 and up due to a lot of sexual content, including some pretty blatant language.
All in all, Lyric Arts‘ production of Grease is a really impressive show. The orchestra is solid, and congratulations are due to costume designer Samantha Kuhn Staneart, scenic designer Brian J Proball, lighting designer Adam Raine, and prop designer Emma Davis, and of course the rest of the crew, on creating realistic, understated and yet visually interesting piece that allows the music and the story to really take center stage. In fact, my only complaint overall was really a technical one: some of the performers’ microphones seemed to cut out at times, or not have an appropriate volume level to stand out against the music; a few lines were hard to hear, which is a bummer given Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey‘s sharp lyrics and dialogue.
So, if you have the opportunity it is definitely worth the trip to Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka to see an interesting new (old, really) spin on one of America’s favourite musicals.