Review by Kelly MacBlane; photo by Liz Lauren.
Grease at the Marriott Theatre reminds us how much we miss- and would never want to experience again- about high school
There is something about the musical Grease that makes us feel good. Maybe it’s that, for a brief moment, we can feel like we’re back in high school. Or maybe it’s the catchy songs. But I think it’s almost impossible to see a production of Grease and not leave the theater dancing and belting out the lyrics to Summer Nights as you walk to the parking lot. The Marriott Theatre’s production of Grease was no exception. Once again, a Marriott production and the production team of Scott Weinstein (director), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (set design), Sally Zack (properties design), Jesse Klug (lighting design) and others amazed me with their ability to create a great theater experience in a small, in-the-round theater.
I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you are familiar with the story of Grease. I was introduced to the classic John Travalota/Olivia Newton-John film at a young age and my mom recounts how my sister and I would dance around to Greased Lighting when we were little. Of course, looking back, that was completely inappropriate as the song and musical itself are pretty inappropriate for a young person, but luckily I lived a blissfully naive life and didn’t make this connection until I was much older. If you have never been exposed to the musical, a quick recap of the show: Sandy and Danny, two high school students in 1959, have met and “fallen in love” (in the way high schoolers do) over the summer and unbeknownst to them are attending the same high school in the fall. Danny is part of the T birds, a greaser gang, and Sandy struggles to find where she fits in as the new girl. Danny doesn’t help by varying from in-love boy to too cool for school greaser. As we follow Danny and Sandy’s story, we also learn about their friends and other students at the school, all of whom are trying to figure out who they are. [One very important note about Grease: the stage musical is very different from the movie! Important plot points are the same and some of the songs overlap, but I remember the first time I saw a stage production, I left feeling very disappointed because I didn’t know the stage version was so different. Going into the Marriott production, I was mentally prepared for these differences and as a result, enjoyed this production much more.]
Weinstein made excellent decisions in his casting of Grease. While it’s hard to take on roles idealized by Travolta and Newton-John, Jimmy Nicholas makes a very acceptably cool and confused Danny Zuko and Leryn Turlington’s Sandy Dumbrowski is exquisitely naive and coy. Their final dissonant note on Summer Nights was everything a fan of this musical would want and they made a believable on again, off again high school couple. I just wish for once, Sandy didn’t have to totally lose herself in tight clothes and stiletto heels to win Danny’s love in the end! Danny’s fellow T birds were equally impressive. Each one gets their own moment to shine- Michael Kurowski’s Doody makes you want to run over and hug him during his These Magic Changes dream sequence. Kevin Corbett’s Kenickie has just enough bully in him and performs a rousing rendition of Greased Lighting, but my favorite was Jake Elkin’s Roger and the very fun Mooning duet he sings with Tiffany Taylor’s Jan.
While the T birds were good, the Pink Ladies were fantastic. Taylor’s Jan was very funny, Michelle Lauto’s Freddy My Love was perfect and Landree Flemming’s Frenchy reminded me of so many of my own high school students- lost and desperately trying to find themselves. But the standout to me was Jacquelyne Jones’ Betty Rizzo. She had so much bitchiness throughout the show and yet, I can’t say I’ve seen a more vulnerable and powerful performance of There are Worse Things I Could Do than hers. The supporting characters are perfectly stereotyped as well: nerdy Eugene Florcyzk played by Garrett Lutz, the annoyingly perky Patty Simcox played by Alaina Wis, creepy Vince Fontaine played by Curt Bouril and the stern Miss Lynch played by Kelly Anne Clark.
What is tricky about this production, as with most productions of Grease, is that the characters are not played by high school students. Watching the show, I connected again why that is: this show is super raunchy! I direct high school musicals myself and honestly had a hard time fathoming how we’d be allowed to put on this show. Ironic, right? Since it takes place in high school? Anyway, watching this production from the balcony in one of the large theaters in Chicago, you wouldn’t notice the age discrepancy. But at the Marriott, it’s pretty much right in your face. Luckily, because I was enjoying the show so much, I could overlook the clearly older actors playing high school students. However, there were moments where the reality hit me and I struggled to believe the characters. I wondered if costume designer, Amanada Vander Byl could have tailored some of the costumes in a way that age was not always as obvious.
If you’re still with me on this review, I thought I’d take the last paragraph to pontificate on this American classic. The Marriott’s production caused me to see Grease in a way I haven’t before. Maybe it was the intimacy of the theater. Or maybe it’s that I now spend most of my days surrounded by high school students. But I had never really connected that the story is so heavily about fitting in and figuring out who you are, such an important part of adolescence. In the stage version, almost every main character has a song where we learn something about them, their hopes, their dreams, their struggles. The stage version to me wasn’t as much of the Danny/Sandy love story I remember the movie being but instead a story of young people making the transition from child to adult. And it reminded me of how hard this transition is. The characters in Grease face grown-up issues but wrestle with them with the minds of an inexperienced young person. Grease really captures that spirit of high school transition. This struck me the most at the end of Act I as the T birds and Pink Ladies are hanging out at a park and they face some social challenges within the scene. Then, after a pretty intense moment, they burst into You’re the One that I Want and sing and dance together again as friends because of course, in the end, they are really still kids.
I think it is impossible not to love Grease and if you want a trip down memory lane whether to relive your own high school experience or your John Travolta loving youth, check out Grease at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.
Grease is now playing at the Marriott Theatre, Ten Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, through March 15th. Performance times vary; check the website at Marriott Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and attheatreinchicago.com.