Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
Nearly half a century ago, a little show opened in Chicago that took the town by storm. Based on Jim Jacobs’ memories of his high school years, it plugged into the softening view of the Fifties, those Eisenhower years between WWII and Vietnam, as a time of benign stability. Named for the guys who slicked their hair into greased ducktails, “Grease” became a musical phenomenon.
Once on Broadway, it ran to the end of the ‘70s, spawned a movie, inspired the TV hit “Happy Days” (remember the Fonz?) and became a favorite of professional and community theatres around the country. 1994 and 2007 each saw a Broadway revival with tweaks to story and songs.
Call it the cult of do-wop - that odd, indefinable bit of mock nostalgia that wants to believe the ‘50s decade was this much fun, this “cool”, and even this romantic. And we’re still eating it up.
We don’t even care that the story, such as it is, is as thin as the spaghetti straps on an old prom dress. And what is the story? Nice girl, Sandy, meets bad boy, Danny, who doesn’t want to appear un-cool to his friends by dating a nice girl. The usual teenage angst and complications ensue. Sandy undergoes a transformation to fit in and they live happily ever after, or at least until after graduation which is pretty much the same thing.
And if anybody is looking for a moral, here it is: Don’t be yourself. If you want to get the guy, change yourself to fit in with his crowd.
But nobody is looking for a moral. They’re looking for exciting choreography and voices behind such classics as “Born to Hand Jive”, “Summer Nights,” and “You’re the One That I Want.” And they can get them at Riverside’s recently opened production.
Patty D’Beck directs and choreographs, which means that the choreography will be high energy and just complex enough to suggest the irrepressible drive of adolescents on the make. Riverside regular, Alan Hoffman, opens the show and appears intermittently as local D.J., Vince Fontaine. The only other adult figure is the bustling, good-natured authoritarian English teacher, Miss Lynch, in a strong portrayal by Kathy Halenda.
“Grease” defines the Rydell High School Class of ’59 as the Burger Palace Boys and their sister cohorts, the Pink Ladies. Their introduction, heavily dependent on the spotlight to separate them as they gossip and sing among themselves, becomes confusing when the girls end up standing inches away from the boys and apparently don’t know it. Odd piece of staging.
But the story we’re meant to care about is between Danny and Sandy. Tyler Breeding and Justine Verheul have an on and off chemistry as the star-crossed teens, but that’s par for a high school romance. He’s the aspiring hood, a guy with a leather jacket and an image to maintain. She’s a “good girl”, innocent beyond measure and dressed in a below-the-knee- shirtwaist dress and sweater. Their harmony first shows up in the sweeter than anything “Summer Nights,” but her magic pipes have their own moment in “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”
Sub-stories pop up along the way, filling in characters. Doody (Kyle Boardman) can’t compete with his tougher pals, but he can get the girls’ attention with his guitar which he employs in the anthem to Fifties-style four chord progression, “Those Magic Changes.” And boys might forget their first girlfriend, but they never forget their first car, immortalized here in an amusingly frisky rendition of “Greased Lightning.”
The spiciest character, hands down, is Betty Rizzo, played to her spiked heels limit by Taylor Lloyd. She’s a leader, a “tough girl” who makes no secret of her sex life and sings the night’s most scathingly satiric song, “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee”. Her rebellious sense of honor gets full voice in the bitter “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Rizzo gets most of her pleasure fighting with boyfriend, Kenickie, (Theron Smith III) and making fun of Sandy.
Beauty School dropout, Frenchy (Georgia Cerisano) makes the rest of the Pink Ladies look like Rhodes Scholars, but she does rate serenading by the strongest voice in the show, the Teen Angel, played by Philip Alexander. His appearance creates a meaningful breather in a show that relentlessly drives from one rowdy ensemble number to the next.
When I saw “Grease” in N.Y. in 1975, it wasn’t a satire but forty-five years later, there’s a real danger of young actors playing it for clichés and laughs. Exhibit A is the exaggerated movements and squealing, babyish voices of some of the girls. A gentle reminder is in order that acting, regardless the vehicle, is a search for truth to be played with simplicity.
DT Willis’s versatile set design with area staging aided by Michael Jarett’s lighting provides a serviceable backdrop for the myriad scenes from high school gym to drive-in movie.
If nothing else, this innocent feel-good hit reduces the troubles of the world to one eternal problem: getting the one you love to love you back. If that can be done with great songs and a few shenanigans, I’m all for it, but I wish the Fifties had really been that simple.
WANT TO GO?
Where: Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Pkwy, Fredericksburg, Va.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com
Playing through March 15