Book, Music & Lyrics by Jim Jacobs & WarRen Casey
with additional music & lyrics by Barry Gibb, John Farrar, S. Bradford, A. Lewis, Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon
Directed by Kris McMurray
for the Connecticut Cabaret Theatre, 31-33 Webster Square Road, Berlin, CT through March 23, www.ctcabaret.com
In 1978, when I was in middle school, Grease certainly was the word. The movie launched the careers of John Travolta and Olivia Newton John from stars up to superstar status. The songs from the mega-selling soundtrack dominated the radio. The film is still the highest-grossing film musical of all time (although that dour Les Miserables is creeping close to the record).
Because the movie became such a cultural touchstone, it is a trick to pull off a successful stage version without the audience constantly comparing the stage Grease to the celluloid Grease. Connecticut Cabaret Theatre's charming, energetic romp of a revival doesn't exactly erase the memories of the film as much as remind us why we fell in love with it in the first place.
In addition to adding songs that were written expressly for the movie, the CT Cabaret production also heavily features the original stage music and lyrics written by Jim Jacobs and WarRen Casey. Some of these tunes, like "Summer Nights" and "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," are highlights of both versions. Fortunately, songs like "It's Raining on Prom Night" and "Mooning," are now restored and rescued from being background music at the malt shop.
Directed by the CT Cabaret's Artistic Director, Kris McMurray, the show is a brisk, bright sock hop filled with bounce and affection for its late-50s high school milieu. The cast is clearly having a ball and the packed audience the night I attended loved every minute of the show. Unlike the film version, which mainly focuses on the star-crossed lovers Danny and Sandy, the stage production passes the ball around a bit more evenly between the secondary and tertiary characters. This is a blessing as the minor characters here are major hams.
The T-Bird trio of Doody (Kevin Ladd), Roger (Bobby Schultz) and Sonny (Chris Brooks) are a flat-out blast. All three have their moments and sing their pants off, with Schultz quite literally dropping trou in his show-stopping number, "Mooning." Kenickie, the leader of the T-Birds, is played with the appropriate swagger and menace by Jonathan Escobar.
Not to be outdone, the Pink Ladies are represented by the sassy trio of Jan (Carleigh Schultz), Marty (Sandra Lee), and everyone's favorite beauty school dropout, Frenchy (Jessica Frye). These three ladies are also a riot with comic moments that rocked the crowd.
Several of the smaller roles are similarly well-cast, particularly Bill Moskaluk as the swanky disc jockey Vince Fontaine, Joe Autuoro as the suave Teen Angel, and Chelsea Neville as the frisky Patty Simcox. One of the pleasures of seeing the stage version is discovering that Patty is not necessarily the goody-two-shoes portrayed in the film and Ms. Neville is a hoot playing the part for maximum laughs.
The trio of leads proves to be a bit more problematic. Kaite Corda's Sandy sings beautifully, but vocally gets lost in the weeds during her group numbers. When the amped up band, nicely led by music director Pawel Jura, cranks up "Summer Lovin'" or "You're the One that I Want," Corda struggles to be heard. During her fine solo numbers, when planted under a microphone, she reveals a lovely vibrato.
As the high school maverick who finds himself unexpectedly melted by a Sandra Dee, Chris Pearson's Danny Zuko mainly consists of postures. He seems less like a hood and more like a student council president passing himself off as a toughie. Pearson sings the part well and dances energetically, but just misses the sexiness and danger the part needs to exude.
Melissa Ingrisano plays the tough-talkin' and gum-snappin' Betty Rizzo. In many ways, Rizzo is the only character in the piece that gets to show any real depth. Her gutter humor and audacious sexuality belie her emotional fragility, expertly revealed in "There Are Worse Things I Can Do." Ingrisano needs to mine more of the angry humor in the part to find more laughs and fully reveal the character's wounds in her big number.