REVIEW: "GREASE" — Musical Theatre West @ Carpenter Performing Arts Ctr.

Grease is Still a Well-Oiled Winner!


Twenty years before he ran for President in “Primary Colors,” svelte John Travolta was shaking his snake hips through the giddy screen version of ''Grease.'' Now the 50's musical that won't go away is back again with another life, and The Carpenter Performing Arts Center is all a-tingle.


Featuring characters we all know by now – Sandy (Monika Peña), Danny (Jonah Ho'okano), the sassy Pink Ladies and the groovy Burger Palace Boys – Musical Theatre West reissues the black leather chestnut in honor of their 70th year anniversary, and once again, this big, bubbly tongue-in-cheek musical takes us back to the days of American Bandstand, the jitterbug, jukeboxes, and drive-in movies, in their campy, musical takeoff on high school romance.


The fictional Rydell High of 1959 is allegedly modeled after a high school in Taft, Chicago, but really it could stand in for practically any school in America at the time. In those years, rebellious young people, to the horror of many adults, were into leather jackets, tight pants, poodle skirts, hot cars and rock 'n' roll from the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.


Jonah Ho'okano and Company in Musical Theatre West's production of Grease

In fact, way back in my college days, in the newspaper section of my school library, I remember a Chicago article about a scary group of girls known as the chain-smoking Pink Ladies – a sort of gang that hangs in the front of Chicago high schools wearing stern-faced wha’-chu-lookin’-at expressions. Their black flats, nylons, and pencil-slim skirts were topped with varsity jackets emblazoned with a champagne glass bubbling over in pink embroidery. Their eyes were smoky with makeup and their billowy hair was haloed in scarves tied taut at the chin, like the strap on a combat helmet.


Jim Jacobs, who wrote Grease with Warren Casey, based the show on his experiences there, which included bleacher observations of the Pink Ladies. Casey, who died in 1988, also drew on memories when he taught high school. He remembers them stowing razor blades in their teased hair, in case girls from another gang attacked them, and carrying church key can openers, not just to pop a Hamm’s but to use for protection.


Rachel Kay, Aurelia Michael-Holmgren and Isa Briones in Musical Theatre West's production of Grease

Ergo, the original “Grease” was appropriately raw, a show not for the faint of heart. Reviewers back then called the characters “a bunch of foul-mouthed, lazy, brawling, useless, cheating, disrespectful no-goods” and warned the show was for those who don’t mind dirty four-letter words and lots of them. Eventually all the four-letter words and sexual references got cut altogether. So, by the time the sun-soaked California film version came along in 1978, Grease was squeaky clean enough for Olivia Newton-John to star in the movie.


And now, with the polished 70’s vintage adaptation and the other sock-hop sentiments, the show, produced by Musical Theatre West, presently onstage at The Carpenter Performing Arts Center through July 24th, manages to punch through all that post-mod cultural clutter and deliver a couple of hours of simple, straight-up, well-performed fun.


Isa Briones in Musical Theatre West's production of Grease

Speaking of fun, this production of Grease spotlights Darius Rose, who is best known as the drag, alter-ego Jackie Cox (World Tour: “JackieVision”) from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in a “you gotta see it to believe it” appearance as Teen Angel in the dream sequence, “Beauty School Dropout.” One of the most frighteningly funny takeoffs I’ve ever seen. Mr. Rose also plays the audacious Miss Lynch (with a character study from the sardonic, rapid-fire wit of Eve Arden’s role in the film, not the Sally Struthers part).


The basic story is the same, although Danny and Sandy are only slightly more prominent and everyone gets a moment in the sun. Aurelia Michael-Holmgren’s Frenchy is a bubble-headed hoot, instilling a fairly dim bulb with a wistful innocence that’s charming and very funny. Stephanie Bull’s Twinkie-loving, high-spirited Jan is also marvelously delightful. Isa Briones’ Rizzo is an appropriately sultry power-house. And as for Jonah Ho’okano’s Danny Zuko, he innately finds the menace and Greaser edginess that channels Travolta’s instant charisma.


Monika Peña and Jonah Ho'okano in Musical Theatre West's production of Grease

Danny is, of course, the leader of the Burger Palace Boys (formerly the T-Birds), a bunch of randy, empty headed Greasers that includes Marqell Edward Clayton as Kenickie, Jason Matthews as Roger, Kris Bona as Doody, and Laura Leo Kelly as would-be hoodlum Sonny (Max Torrez on the day of performance), whose only visible interest seems to be an ineptly aggressive pursuit of sex. Chalk it all up to raging hormones, and in truth there is still a slightly raunchy quality to "Grease." There's still some pelvic thrusting, sexual references and mild swearing that makes it all seem a lot like, well…high school.


So, Director Snehal Desai’s sharp and propulsive production delivers what “Grease” does best, starting with fun and faithful renditions of those hook-laden ’50s-esque songs (“Summer Nights,” “We Go Together,” “Hopelessly Devoted”) by writer-composers Jacobs and Casey.


Darius Rose in Musical Theatre West's production of Grease

Director Desai also has a very capable cast, led by Monika Peña as an ideal Sandy, the sweetly principled Rydell High School newcomer, opposite the gifted singer Mr. Ho’okano as Danny, that wannabe bad boy who toys with her heart. Ms. Peña, who was last seen as an understudy for Maria in McCoy Rigby Entertainment's "The Sound of Music," has the perfect sweet charm and vocals to pull off a legendary role immortalized by the likes of Olivia Newton-John. The show, in fact, has a cohesive ensemble with no weak links, with standout performances by all, including the “Greased Lightnin’” harmonies of Danny and his buddies Kenickie, Sonny, Doody and Roger and the soulful solo by Ms. Briones’ Rizzo on “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”


Based on Jalon Matthew’s portrayal of Roger, it’s a shame the character wasn’t in the movie. Mr. Matthews has irrepressible charisma and is a huge standout with his impressive soaring vocals on “Mooning,” a charming, lively twosome with Stephanie Bull’s Jan. Don't these kids ever study?


Monika Peña and Jonah Ho'okano in Musical Theatre West's production of Grease

Janaya Mahealani Jones' effervescent Marty has a fling in a lonely hearts club and sends a lump to your throat with “Freddie, My Love.” (Interestingly, however, after Marty’s song, we hear nothing further about her marine.) Eugene, the class valedictorian, is an inept, lovable nerd; and the student roster is completed by Patty (Devan Watring), a ridiculed, all-American type cheerleader who has some pivotal scenes. I actually rooted for Patty.


Ms. Peña’s portrayal of the innocent schoolgirl Sandy was suitably hesitant and wide-eyed as she tried her first cigarette — Rizzo: “Try it, it ain’t gonna kill you,”— but firm when Danny tries to go too far with her at the drive-in, telling him, “I’m still the same girl I was last summer.” In the finale, “You’re the One That I Want,” Ms. Peña’s Sandy reveals her new “hard as nails” rebel look to Danny and they proclaim their love for one another with all of their friends looking on (“We Go Together”).


Monika Peña and Jonah Ho'okano (center) and Company in Musical Theatre West's production of Grease

C. Wright’s excellent choreography drives the ensemble numbers “Born to Handjive” and “You’re the One That I Want” into the rock ‘n roll stratosphere, while music director Jan Roper’s compact but crisp six-piece band easily musters the required rock ’n’ roll energy with frothy, mindless fun. Tamara Becker’s costumes and Cliff Simon’s sets — featuring a car that gets trundled onstage — also contribute greatly to establishing a realistic and satisfying sense of the era.


The show moves swiftly and without a hitch from cafeteria to pajama party, prom, Burger Palace and drive-in movie, among other places. The boys are forever striking cool, sharp attitudes; the girls are full of wisecracks. And how they sing and dance in this most stylishly staged and choreographed show! Not since "Bye Bye Birdie" has the inane world of the early rockers been presented with such zip and charm. But that work only touched on the music of the time. "Grease" is wholly immersed in it.

Bottom line: it’s hard to sit still and not wish you were 17 again.


MUSICAL THEATRE WEST IN THEIR 70TH ANNIVERSARY YEAR, PRESENTS THE 1971 BROADWAY MUSICAL – “GREASE;” Book, Music & Lyrics by JIM JACOBS & WARREN CASEY; Direction by SNEHAL DESAI; Conductor/Music Direction by JAN ROPER; Choreography by C. WRIGHT; Scenic Design by CLIFF SIMON; Lighting Design by WESLEY CHARLES SIU MUEN CHEW; Sound Design by JULIE FERRIN; Costume Design by TAMARA BECKER; Assistant Costume Design by AMY SETTERLUND; Wig Design by MICHON GRUBER; Property Design by DYLAN POWELL; Property Design by Gretchen Morales; Projection Design by BLAKE MCCARTY; Technical Direction by KEVIN CLOWES; Production Stage Manager SHAY GARBER; Assistant Stage Manager LYDIA RUNGE; Stage Manager BRANDON CHENG; Production Manager STEVE CALZARETTA; Company Manager BREN THOR; Executive Director/Producer PAUL GARMAN.


STARRING: DARIUS ROSE as Miss Lynch/Teen Angel; DEVAN WATRING as Patty; AUSTIN OWENS KELLY as Eugene; STEPHANIE BULL as Jan; JANAYA MAHEALANI JONES as Marty; ISA BRIONES as Rizzo; KRIS BONA as Doody; JALON MATTHEWS as Roger; MARQELL EDWARD CLAYTON as Kenickie; LAURA LEO KELLY as Sonny; RACHEL KAY as Frenchy; MONIKA PENA as Sandy; JONAH HO’OKANO as Danny; QUINTAN CRAIG as Vince Fontaine; AJ RAFAEL as Johnny Casino; ANYSSA NAVARRO as Radio Voice; AURELIA MICHAEL-HOLMGREN (Frenchy 7/15) as Cha Cha. ENSEMBLE: KURT KEMPER; MAX TORREZ (Sonny 7/15); VIRGINIA TRENT.


GREASE is playing at THE CARPENTER PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, LONG BEACH and will run through Sunday, July 24th; Running time approximately 2 hours, 20 minutes; Performances will be Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, Saturdays at 2:00PM and Sundays at 1:00PM and 6:00PM. No 6:00PM performance on Sunday, July 24th. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased by visiting https://musical.org


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

www.theshowreport.org