July 10, 2017
If nearly all the songs in the current Engeman production of ‘Grease’ sound the same, it’s because that’s the way most melodies were in the late 50’s. Tunes of the day seemed to have been produced by a musical cookie cutter. That said, give Director Paul Stancato and his cast of seventeen singers and dancers high marks for capturing the mood of teenage life and love at fictional Rydell High (based on the William Howard Taft School) in 1958 suburban Chicago.
It was a time, of course, when most American kids nearing graduation snuck an alcoholic drink now and then … and everybody (but everybody!) … smoked cigarettes religiously. Indeed one of the more ironic lines in this musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey has a girl coaxing her classmate to go ahead and take a puff because, “…heck, it won’t kill ya’.”
If only we’d known then, what we know now.
Speaking of which … there’s a subliminal message that might be learned from this throwback show. Of all seventeen members of the cast, this reviewer spotted only two who bore tattoos (and even they appeared to have been the subjects of unsuccessful attempts to cover them). The caveat might effectively caution young actors who hope to bring authenticity to their interpretations of roles gone by … to lay off the ink. After all, they make those ‘wash-off’ kiddie tats if I’m not mistaken. The fact, however, is that mid-20th Century high schoolers didn’t use tattoos … just as they didn’t wear torn jeans (we called them dungarees at Riverhead High, if I remember correctly.)
With ‘Grease,’ The Engeman continues a long string of more-than-satisfying musical revivals. On the distaff side, Laura Helm (as Marty) and Madeleine Barker (playing Rizzo) contribute most significantly to this production … while Sam Wolf (in the play’s demanding lead role) turns in a classic Danny Zuko.
Naturally, with the passing of years, fewer and fewer theatergoers will recognize the dance, ditty, and dialogue patterns that make creations like ‘Grease’ so familiar and appealing. Already, those patrons who have not yet reached the age of ‘three score and ten’ will be puzzled by many of the 1958 references written into this show. But even with the necessity of inferring a term, or a phrase’s meaning in lieu of actual recollection, a well-constructed show laced with capable players never loses its ability to entertain us.
Some things haven’t changed since Adam & Eve, and ‘Grease’ comes up with a surprise when Betty Rizzo announces hers … yep … the play’s pepperpot informs us she’s “…five days late, and in a family way.”
Oh, my! You’ll just have to see for yourself how that works out, but the situation pretty much verifies that what’s been hinted at throughout the musical, has indeed been going on (probably in the on-stage convertible named ‘Greased Lightning’ that the various couples seem to share … for a variety of activities.
It seemed to my companion and me last weekend that the costumes (by Matthew Solomon) while interesting, didn’t quite constitute the period garb we remembered … she in Queens in the 50’s … myself in Eastern Long Island during the same time frame. Then again, the locale for this show is the Chicago area, so those leather jackets and polka dot or flaring skirts could actually be spot on.