By Barry Reszel
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons likely would have found success if “Sherry” never spawned. But there’s a scene in Jersey Boys that sets up The Four Seasons’ rise, with this description of the song’s birth: “And then, one day a tune pops into my head. I jot down some dummy words, Nick and I do a quick cut arrangement then we call the studio and sing it to Crue. And the whole world exploded!”
To be sure, Jim Jacobs’ and Warren Casey’s 1971 Grease that garnered numerous 1972 Tony nominations and set a record for its time on the Great White Way, earned its own successes. But the tuneful musical following working-class teenagers (Greasers) navigating peer pressure, personal core values and love during the late 1950s at the fictional Rydell High School, based on Chicago’s William Howard Taft, also got a boost. In 1978, John Travolta stole the song “Greased Lightning” from his sidekick, Kenickie; movie producers added a whimsical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-like flying car; Olivia Newton-John donned a pair of skin-tight black leather pants for the movie’s final scene…and the whole world exploded.
Grease was the word.
Thirty-two years, a live TV version and countless stagings later, it’s still the word to many musical theatre patrons. And for this reviewer, Marriott’s season-opening current production is certainly the one that I want. (Readers desiring a plot summary and production history of the musical will find it here.)
Including songs from the original stage musical and adding some featured in the movie (though sadly, not “Sandy”), Marriott’s rendition is well-directed by Scott Weinstein with highly energetic choreography by William Carlos Angulo and fabulous musical direction from Ryan T. Nelson. While performances are first-rate among the entire 22-member ensemble, there’s a quadrumvirate to highlight, each worth the price of admission on its own.
First is the depiction of Sandy and rendition of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” crooned by the magnificent Leryn Turlington. Her gorgeous voice and endearing innocence make her the perfect Sandy Dumbrowski, Rydell’s new kid fresh off a virginal summer tryst with head Greaser Danny Zuko (well played by Marriott newcomer Jimmy Nicholas). Building on her lead performance as Dorothy in Chicago Shakespeare’s Wizard of Oz this summer, Turlington, the terifically-talented transplant from Florida, morphs into Sandy with spark and spunk. The Oz review here notes several other of her many accomplishments, and Chicagoland patrons best get used to seeing her grace our stages for as long as she chooses.
Next, eat your heart out, Frankie Avalon, because highlight number two in Marriott’s Grease belongs to Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and his show-stopping (twice) rendition of “Beauty School Dropout.” This leading player from Marriott’s recent staging of Something Rotten (review here) owns every stage he puts his dancing feet on. While he’s an active Grease ensemble member, his Teen Angel celestial advice to Pink Lady Frenchy, to give up her teasing comb and go back to high school, is what this gifted performer will be remembered for here. So, too, the scene shows off the best of Amanda Vander Byl‘s costuming talents, which need to be seen live to be fully enjoyed.
Highlight three belongs to the stunning Jacqueline Jones in her stint as bad girl Pink Lady Betty Rizzo. In particular, Jones’ rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” is all of sexy, sultry and smoldering. It could, hands down, be the best number at a professional cabaret and ought to be the catalyst for Jones to be more consistently cast in large roles on Chicagoland’s largest stages.
Ditto that for the final major highlight here, Michelle Lauto‘s performance as Pink Lady Marty. Not only is her “Freddy My Love” both powerful and flirtatious, but Lauto’s overall performance makes patrons want to focus on her in group scenes just to see how Marty is taking it all in. She simply gets better in every show she’s cast.
While these four demand paragraphs of their very own, there is no shortage of plaudits to hand out for this production. Michael Kurowski‘s turn as T-Bird Doody playing and singing “Those Magic Changes” and Kelly Anne Clark’s fabulous acting as the tightly wound principal, Miss Lynch, are two. Jessica Palkovic’s Cha Cha DiGregorio, Landree Fleming’s Frenchy, Kevin Corbett‘s Kenickie, along with Jake Elkins and Tiffany T. Taylor (as Roger and Jan signing a hilarious “Mooning”) are others. So, too, Garrett Lutz and Alaina Wis are the delightful as nerdy Eugene Florczyk and Patty Simcox.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec‘s stage design joins with Jesse Klug‘s lighting to include a bevy of 1950s-esque neon signs, diner booths, and period-perfect moveable parts (including the car) that enhance every scene with authenticity while remaining mobile enough to accommodate sight lines of patrons at Marriott’s in-the-round setting. If there’s a nit within such a professional production, it’s that scenes with extended dialogue drag a tad, and patrons are grateful when Conductor Patti Garwood‘s terrific orchestra strikes the opening chords of the next song.
Finally, it’s also worth noting that Grease may just be a barometer to judge our society’s growth on its journey to eradicate one of its unfortunate -isms. Perhaps it’s a nod to the #metoo movement’s impact or a combination of factors, but there are cringe-worthy, misogynistic elements of this show that don’t get to be explained away by saying, “That’s how it was in the 50s.”
Though that may certainly be the case, enlightened people, regardless of sex, need to stand up and say prowling macho behavior wasn’t OK then and isn’t OK now. Sandra Dee and Sandy Dumbrowski don’t need to become sex kittens unless they want to. And they certainly don’t need to do it to get a man.
If Marriott’s staging helps even some patrons to think along these lines as they take in the talents of Chicagoland’s finest performers, well, there are worse things it could do.
Marriott Theatre presents “Grease” through March 15 at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL. More information and tickets are available here.