Theater archives

Remembrance of Whatevuh


Grease, in its present form, is the theatrical equivalent of an asteroid: a chunk of old rock that, when it was young and hot, broke loose from the reality to which it had been anchored and now, cooled down, drifts aimlessly through space, accumulating royalties the way an asteroid accumulates specks of cosmic dust. It may have once had some meaning or function on its home planet, but it is so small a chunk, and has been drifting for so many aeons, that you would need a magnifying spectroscope to locate its contents. It exists, it drifts, it’s there; that’s all. Unless it happens to collide with you, there’s no particular reason to bother about it.

The worst part, I’m afraid, is that it’s all my fault. You see, back when I was a small child, the Voice encouraged me to write about theater outside New York. And so, one balmy night in Chicago, I went to see a non-Equity off-Loop show I’d heard was fun, at a theater called Kingston Mines. I enjoyed myself and said so in print. Somebody apparently thought this was a good omen, and the next thing I knew, Grease had become the longest-running musical on Broadway, and had spawned a gigantically successful movie version. The shock made me fall into an inexplicable torpor, from which I only awoke when Kerry Butler started mimicking Olivia Newton-John’s accent in Xanadu.

That, at any rate, is the short version of the story. The missing details have to do with what
Grease was and how it has evolved into something quite different. It began as a parody, of ’50s rock and the teen movies that often encased it, to amuse the generation for which they were an adolescent rite of passage, welded to the greasers-vs.-nice-kids conflict that dogged middle-class high schools in the late Eisenhower era. By the early ’70s, those high-schoolers had settled into their young urban professionalism; those who’d grown up in suburbia were moving back into the cities their parents’ generation had fled, and they could look back on the foolishness of their high-school years with a rueful snicker.

Grease is, or was, that rueful snicker. The original New York production, in which director Tom Moore and choreographer Patricia Birch whipped the amicable japes of writers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey into a giddy souffle, never lost sight of the regret under the foolery: It was cast with performers whose adolescent years dated from the era spoofed by the songs, a fact underscored by the presence— at least when the production began Off-Broadway—of their actual high-school yearbook photographs, strung out across the proscenium arch. For theatergoers in that age range, it was like using Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in place of Proust’s madeleine—a notion that’s a big, silly, good-humored American joke. As Grease itself is.

Or was, at least. Nothing kills jokes like mass manufacture—if Walter Benjamin had had any sense, he’d have bemoaned the fate of the good laugh in the age of mechanical reproduction—and once Grease had been souped up into movie-blockbuster status, it was already well on its downward trajectory, destined to become the diluted thing it is now. The watery, wannabe-hit songs added for the movie, by more “professional” but emptier hands, now soften the brash edges of the show’s cheerfully parodic score, while some of the original numbers have been junked, moved about, or had their lyrics tinkered with to preserve family values that were nowhere near the original’s way of thinking. The original book made a tenuous, loose-limbed, silly sort of sense; the current one doesn’t even try to make any, retaining scenes while cutting the songs that were their only reason for existing, and other such tricks.

Despite the amount of conscious parody left in the material, the show Kathleen Marshall has directed and choreographed supplies neither comic nor serious nostalgia; it all seems to occur in a placeless, timeless, MTV-retro era, possibly on some other planet. Laura Osnes, the Sandy, displays a lot of personality; Lindsay Mendez, the Jan, has a decent way with a song. But none of the gang except Jose Restrepo, the Sonny, conveys even the remotest sense of character (the monotone heavy-handedness of Jenny Powers’s Rizzo is particularly painful), leaving peripheral figures like Susan Blommaert’s crisp Miss Lynch and Jamison Scott’s geeky Eugene to steal your attention in roles that are meant as one-note caricatures. Auld lang syne kept me smiling, but I felt the pang of the original Grease‘s absence more strongly than any pleasure I could derive from this version. I miss the show that used to have the honor, such as it was, of being the only Broadway musical in history to feature a song that begins, “I saw a dead skunk on the highway.” Grease, as a “property” (loathsome word in this context), has become what it once viewed mockingly; I won’t go so far as to call it roadkill, but I can’t say there’s much life in it. That its leads were cast via TV is no big deal; all the thinking involved seems to have been recast that way ages ago.

Like Grease, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is another of those works so frequently revived that everybody knows it by heart (though probably not the same “everybody” who knows Grease). I wasn’t around for the original, but I lived through the two productions that defined the play for our time, Peter Brook’s and Alvin Epstein’s. To my delight, keeping them in my head has never dulled the Dream for me: Other productions may not have measured up to the best, but they’ve all found access to some part of the work’s eternal freshness; in the several dozen I’ve reviewed, I can’t remember one that spoiled it completely. Shakespeare anchored the piece in truths that apparently make it impossible to ruin.

Not that you’d say Daniel Sullivan’s Central Park revival was anywhere near ruination, though his ideas about it, like his casting, seem scattershot and uneven. I guess I understand Ann Hould-Ward’s vaguely Edwardian costumes, but why is Hermia’s father (George Morfogen) an Orthodox archbishop? The fairies being night creatures, Sullivan’s fancy makes them London-at-night creatures: Jon Michael Hill’s opera-caped Puck is the glummest sprite who ever made mischief, and Laila Robins’s gowned, corseted Titania confronts Keith David’s frock-coated Oberon with the frosty hauteur of a dowager duchess. Robins doesn’t really begin to show her rich expressiveness as an actress until she uncorsets, literally as well as metaphorically; the same is true of Martha Plimpton, who begins as the starchiest Helena ever, only warming to the role as she sheds her outer garments. Austin Lysy’s Lysander is very good, Elliot Villar’s Demetrius well-spoken. Sullivan’s best ideas include having children, all excellent, play the lesser fairies, and playing the “mechanicals” as ordinary guys rather than riotous cutups, proving that Shakespeare’s lines, said believably, trigger all the laughs you need. If this isn’t a Dream to blow its predecessors out of memory, it’s one that will do pleasantly for now—a good step up from some recent Park productions.