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Summer Lovin’

by John Rodat on August 11, 2011

Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, directed by John Saunders, choreographed by Brian Knowlton, Mac-Haydn Theatre, through Aug. 14

The musical Grease was, in its original inception, a gritty drama about working-class teens in 1950s Chicago. But, according to playwright Jim Jacobs, he was told that for the play to be successful he needed to make the characters likable rather than scary. His changes were, to understate the case, extremely effective. Until being overtaken by A Chorus Line in the early ’80s, Grease was the longest-running show in Broadway history. (It is currently the 13th-longest running.)

Aspiring musical dramatists may want to take note that the method Jacobs used to make his characters “likable” was to reduce them to shallow types and use them to deliver adolescent humor and nostalgic songs. This, by the way, is just meant as an observation, not as a criticism of the play—which has its appeal. But that appeal is almost wholly in the songs, as there is very, very little drama in Grease.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot, such as it is, it goes like this: Danny, a young hood, meets Sandy, a recent transplant to his neighborhood, with whom he has an innocent summer romance. When vacation ends, Danny is surprised to find that Sandy has enrolled in his public high school rather than the private school she had planned to attend. Sandy’s virginal goodness threatens Danny’s reputation as the school’s most charming bad boy. So, to win him back, Sandy adopts a trashy persona and, we are left to assume, they live happily ever after as king and queen of the delinquents, unchanging teens for eternity.

There is a token pregnancy scare (not for Sandy, of course), and a passing reference to gang violence, but unlike, say, the far superior West Side Story, this is not a tragedy. No action in Grease has any particular consequence, and no character changes much more than their clothing. It’s really just about the music. So, what of that?

Well, if you like the doo-wop-informed rock & roll balladry of the early ’50s, you will like Grease. With the exception of “Hopelessly Devoted to You”—a truly horrible and anachronistic song written for Olivia Newton John, star of the movie version, and added to the play’s songlist after its success—the tunes are competent and enjoyable tributes to the era. And they’re well-served by Mac-Haydn’s current cast, all of whom are talented singers. The ensemble pieces, in particular, were rousing.

As actors, the cast were decent, in undemanding roles. Given the low stakes of the main plot, it was the minor comedic roles that most engaged: Lauren French was fun and wry as a wisecracking compulsive eater; Scott Wasserman was charming as the well-intentioned and dim Doody; Amelia Millar was amusingly earnest as a perky cheerleader. This is not to slight the actors in larger roles: Charles South as Danny, Kelsey Self as Sandy, Joshua Phan-Gruber as Kenickie and Carman Napier as Rizzo all worked well with what they were given.

As a play, Grease is pretty slight. But as a revue of ’50s-style light rock & roll and teen ballads, it’s, well, likable.