REVIEW: "GREASE" — La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
A rollicking rock ‘n roll homage to the 50s, young love, and teenage coming of age.
It was, as historians say, a time of transition. America was between wars and popular music had become influenced by the rhythm ‘n’ blues style of singers such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, so rock ‘n’ roll was just starting to rock. It would be yet another five years before the Beatles arrived to give rock that more sophisticated sound.
“Grease,” which originated in Chicago, was born on an amateur stage in the summer of 1971. At that point it was five hours long, and the book was the size of a Manhattan phone directory, but successfully attracted blue‐collar audiences reliving their 50's youth of black jackets, ducktail haircuts and flashy, noisy cars, effectively transporting them back to those dear days when Elvis still had his pelvis, butter didn't melt in Sandra Dee's mouth, hair styles looked like James Dean's and Marlon Brando rode a motorcycle.
Named after the 1950s restless youth subculture known as greasers, the musical is set in 1959 at fictional Rydell High School (based on Taft High School in Chicago, and named after rock singer Bobby Rydell), and follows a group of rebellious, working-class teenage students as they navigate the complexities of peer pressure, politics, personal core values, and love.
The show was written, with book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, perfectly catching the flavor of its rapidly changing times. Remember 1942’s summer of innocence? Poles apart here. Primarily, it was the bold emergence of the new morality that made the summer of ‘59 different for teenagers from the summer of ‘42.
Mr. Casey, at the time a 44‐year‐old native of Yonkers and a former high‐school teacher, and Mr. Jacobs, then 37, a Chicagoan and former advertising copywriter, initially met in an amateur theater group there in 1963. But it was not until 1970, while improvising a new song called “Beauty School Dropout,” that they were struck by the notion of writing a show about high‐school students during the late 1950's.
But that original, good-natured paean to adolescent randiness, which first performed on February 5, 1971 at the Kingston Mines nightclub in Chicago, had the amiable air of a raw, gritty spoof, enacted by a lively, raunchy ensemble of youngsters just old enough to understand what they were spoofing. It would take several subsequent adaptations to tone down the risqué content for more general audiences.
In the summer of the next year, the production moved to the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway, then to the Royale, where it ran until January 27, 1980. For the five final weeks of the run, the show moved to the larger Majestic Theatre, and by the time it closed that April, it had run 3,388 performances — the longest in Broadway history (although surpassed in ’83 by “A Chorus Line”). It went on to become a West End hit, with two popular Broadway revivals in 1994 and 2007, and now is a staple of regional theatre, summer stock and community theatre.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, celebrating its 29th Anniversary Season, now presents the sensationally electrifying musical, “Grease,” in a triumphant return to their stage through Sunday, February 12th, with a hand-picked group of professional actors, directed by Kari Hayter, choreographed by Christopher M. Albrecht, and musically directed by Ryan O'Connell.
Consequently, the gang at old Rydell High, which is the universe of "Grease," is going to be unlike any high school class you've ever seen except perhaps in the movies. Loaded with the kind of perfected talent and exuberance you don't often find on a musical stage, this very brilliant cast not only portrays their characters extremely well, but effectively adds much dimension to them.
Ryan Reyes, as Danny Zuko, the not-so-malevolent Burger Palace Boys gang-leader, has that hard-to-find energy and humor that are brought to life by the musical numbers. Jenna Lea Rosen is also simultaneously very funny and utterly charming as Sandy, the show's ingénue, a demure, virginal Sandra Dee-type. She possesses true stage presence as well as a sweet, pure singing voice. Actually, the Sandra Dee I remember (I was a 9-year-old music protégé at the time), had a voice that seemed to have been manufactured in Universal's speech-and-special-effects department.
The idea seems to be that if the music is relentless, the audience will be swept into an irresistible, rhythmic tidal wave, and the crowd does indeed roar like groupies at a Rock of Ages performance. You'll no doubt find your foot keeping time, in a Pavlovian way, with every number — including the soul interpretation of "Beauty School Dropout," performed by a Little Richard-like Teen Angel (Desmond Newson). And the sly, sassy musical satire of rueful songs like "Summer Nights" (led by Ms. Rosen and Mr. Reyes) and "Freddy, My Love" (performed by Melissa Musial’s Marty) which nearly knocks you sideways in amazement.
Set amid the large-scale collage panels of Stephen Gifford's colorful sets are trendy surrealist 50’s costumes in bright colors by Maine State Music Theatre, coordinated by Adam Ramirez, and music that mixes Jacobs and Casey's parodistic songs with authentic 1950's standards, musically styled and directed by an eximious Ryan O’Connell.
Most probably, all by now has seen the high-spirited but sanitized film version as well, produced by Robert Stigwood, which transposed the setting from that gritty urban environment to suburban California and even put a disco spin on the music. The film featured the Dick Clarkish disk jockey Vince Fontaine reincarnated as a New Wave D.J-cum-M.C., who oversees the evening in a suit that Elvis Costello might wear to play Vegas. And there was also an abundance of archly, two-dimensional visuals that evoked the advertising graphics of MTV and Nickelodeon.
In the movie, Eve Arden, a fixture of the 50's as “Our Miss Brooks,” played Rydell High's unflappable principal; Sid Caesar was the football coach; Edd Byrnes comes on briefly as the lecherous host of a teen-age TV show that decides to spotlight Rydell in a network program; Jean Blondell is the harassed waitress at the corner soda fountain, and, maybe funniest of all, was Frankie Avalon, who appeared in the dream sequence to counsel an unhappy student ("Beauty School Dropout").
This 1978 slicked-up, cleaned-up feature film adaptation, however, cemented John Travolta and British-Australian singer and actress Olivia Newton-John as stars, although the film removed some familiar plot elements, characters and songs while adding new songs. Some of these revisions have eventually been incorporated into revivals of the stage musical.
At La Mirada, it is to Director Kari Hayter’s credit that the musical numbers slip in and out of reality with hugely comic effect. The highlights of the stage show include the favorite, "Sandy," sang by a very polished Ryan Reyes, as well as one of the catchiest upbeat rock numbers ever, "We Go Together." But the hit of the show is probably the breathless company number everyone anticipates, "You're the One That I Want," written by John Farrar and beautifully choreographed by Christopher M. Albrecht.
Ms. Rosen’s Sandy (“Hopelessly Devoted to You”) has a valedictorian’s poise, a sweet singing voice and eyes that instantly well up during emotional moments. As the new girl in town, her transformation from a sweet, naïve innocent to a sizzling siren should be patented. As the salty-mouthed, promiscuous Betty Rizzo, Domonique Paton affects a droll, deadpan delivery that conveys the character's tough heart of gold defensiveness along with exuberant carnality. She would stop the show twice, once with a pasty put-on of poor Sandy in ("Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee") and another at Jan’s party when she attempts, in song, to explain why it's more honorable to be loose than uptight ("There Are Worse Things I Could Do").
Notable mentions are Suzanna Guzmán as a no-nonsense Miss Lynch; the beautifully voiced Monika Peña as the sure-of-herself cheerleader Patty with bouts of disconcerting enthusiasm (“Rydell Fight Song”); Bella Hicks’ good-natured Frenchy, who can’t wait to be a beautician (“Beauty School Dropout”); Rianny Vasquez’ loud, funny, compulsive-eater Jan; Steven-Adam Agdeppa and Jalon Matthews as guitar-playing Doody and anything-for-a-laugh Roger (“Rock ‘n Roll Party Queen”); Grant Hodges’ testy, tough and tattooed Kenickie, second in command of the Burger Palace Boys (“Greased Lightnin’”); Max Torrez’ lady-killer Sonny; Todd Adamson’s portrayal of slick, fast-talking ex-greaser Vince Fontaine; Taleen Shrikian’s dancing Cha-Cha; and Desmond Newson’s all-American rock star Johnny Casino.
The entire company seems flawless in dance, action and song, turning out a rock and roll musical with a life of its own —one that is both timeless and old-fashioned, both sentimental and wise, standing outside the traditions it mimics. And there is none other theatrical group that can honor that so effectively as La Mirada Theatre’s present ensemble of players.
LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS PRESENTS THE 1971 BROADWAY MUSICAL – “GREASE;” Book, Music & Lyrics by JIM JACOBS & WARREN CASEY; Direction by KARI HAYTER; Music Direction by RYAN O’CONNELL; Choreography by CHRISTOPHER M. ALBRECHT; Scenic Design by STEPHEN GIFFORD; Lighting Design by STEVEN YOUNG; Sound Design by JOSH BESSOM; Wig/Hair/Makeup Design by KAITLIN YAGEN; Property Design by KEVIN WILLIAMS; Technical Direction by KEVIN CLOWES; Production Stage Manager JILL GOLD; Assistant Stage Manager KATHERINE BARRETT; Casting Director JULIA FLORES; General Manager THERESA FLEMMING; Company Manager DAVID NESTOR; Publicist DAVID ELZER/DEMAND PR; Marketing SWEIBEL ARTS INNOVATION & LEADERSHIP. “HOPELESSLY DEVOTED TO YOU,” “SANDY,” “YOU’RE THE ONE THAT I WANT” by special arrangement with ROBERT STIGWOOD.
STARRING: JENNA LEA ROSEN as Sandy Dumbrowski; RYAN REYES as Danny Zuko; DOMONIQUE PATON as Betty Rizzo; BELLA HICKS as Frenchy; MELISSA MUSIAL as Marty; RIANNY VASQUEZ as Jan; GRANT HODGES as Kenickie; STEVEN-ADAM AGDEPPA as Doody; MAX TORREZ as Sonny LaTierri; JALON MATTHEWS as Roger; SUZANNA GUZMÁN as Miss Lynch; TODD ADAMSON as Vince Fontaine; DESMOND NEWSON as Johnny Casino/Teen Angel; MONIKA PEÑA as Patty Simcox; JAMES TOLBERT as Eugene; and TALEEN SHRIKIAN as Cha-Cha DiGregorio. Understudies are KRISTEN DANIELS and ADRIAN VILLEGAS. GREASE is playing at LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada, and will run through Sunday, February 12th; Running time approximately 2 hours, 20 minutes; Performances will be Thursdays at 7:30PM, Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM & 8PM, and Sundays at 1:30PM and 6:30PM. No 6:30PM performance on Sunday, January 26th. Tickets range from $19-90 and can be purchased by visiting www.lamiradatheatre.com or by calling (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. Parking is free.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Niedle