Thursday, June 19, 2014

It’s Still the Word…and Not the Bird This Time

My sister and I took our kids to see Grease at the Paper Mill Playhouse this past weekend.

I like to bring these things up, not from any belief that I have the knowledge or ability to comment competently on this art form, but to point out that we’re not raising our child solely on a diet of stupid movies.  Therefore bear with me if this post veers between the confusingly pointless and the blisteringly obvious.

Warning:  I'm going to pick on the 1978 movie.  This is likely due to my folks seeing it when it first ran on Broadway (because they were that cool), and my Mom playing the original cast album frequently during my childhood as part of my in-depth cultural education.

In the interest of full disclosure, the reason we went was Bobby Conte Thornton, playing Danny Zuko, is my Mom’s cousin’s grandson.  That means he’s her cousin and mine too, right?  It’s one of those of Nth cousin Xce removed things that I can never remember how it works.

Anyway, it’s a section of the family we’ve got important and close connections to.  His grandparents kind of served as the blueprint for how my folks raised us, my parents watched his mom and uncle when the grandparents travelled, and they were the good examples we were encouraged to aim for. (Plus his Mom gave me my King Kong poster, a prized possession for most of my life.)

In a less long winded way, he’s some sort of cousin of mine, but the ties between our families are beyond merely a statement that my genetic material is closer to his than to a chimpanzee.
(Not my appearance or my talents, mind you, those are still firmly on the ape side, just the genes.)

Now that the aimless bit of banter and monkey jokes are out of the way, on with the show.

The play was phenomenal.  Many theaters advertise as being “Broadway Quality.”  Of course, that is only a hundred percent true ON Broadway.  However, at many locations that statement often translates into, “Somewhat bigger and with a slightly better sound system than the local high school.”  Paper Mill Playhouse, having been the proving ground for shows before they hit the Great White Way, comes darn close to delivering on the “Broadway Quality” description on most fronts. It took me a while to realize the real band was on stage because they sounded much larger than they were. When Brad Simmons stepped down off that bandstand to become Johnny Casino, the whole place was rockin’ to the Hand Jive.

The biggest exception to the recreation of the Time Square feel is that a wrong turn heading back to transportation when walking out of the place deposits a patron in a small wooded park, rather than the adult industries playground that is Eighth Avenue.

First, some sweeping generalities:

Singing:  Each actor embraced their chance to shine and impress when it was time for their featured numbers.

Dancing:  The group dancing scenes had top notch execution, both as ensemble pieces, and also by having each actor stay specifically in character with their moves. Even when they were all doing the same steps, there was no mistaking who was who.  Kevin Santos was listed as “Dance captain.” I admit to having no idea what that is and did not notice a uniform. Some inadequately brief research indicates he maintained the choreography throughout the run, and took part in teaching the dances. He deserves a salute for his captaincy.

Acting:  Movies are more my area, and I’ve gone on (endlessly - Yes, I know) about how a film is a large group of people working together to create enduring moments of strong emotional memories.  Plays are different. There’s a more intimate group of people involved in the planning.  More importantly, at zero hour it’s the individual performer that creates an emotional connection with the audience to make them feel like a true part of the event.  Those generated emotions are far stronger in a live show, particularly when honed over multiple performances.  In spite of their strength, those feelings have an almost dream like quality that can be recalled yet not fully recreated internally outside of the playhouse.

OK, that was more long winded and artsy-fartsy than I was aiming for.  My meandering point is that the cast succeeded in repeatedly in creating those feelings.

Again, my musical theatre knowledge is tenuous at best, but I do know from funny.

Therefore I need to recognize Matt Wood’s performance as Roger.  His comic timing, actions, and reactions were constantly hysterical, but didn’t take away from scenes where he needed to show other sides of the character.  He reminded me of John Belushi, but not as an impersonation.  Instead it was his willingness to throw himself full force into any gag that made me think of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Player…
That and exceptionally expressive comic eyebrows.  
Hearing a voice come out of him that sounded like it should be backed by “The Capris” was a cool surprise.

Honestly, I was originally planning an Engineering like job description to cover the entire cast: “Sang great, danced great, very funny or other emotions generated as required.”
I thought following up with, “Apologies to anyone I leave out, you were all amazing.” might be enough. 

I’m not going to do that because, for a change, I have a vague idea of where this post is going and I’ll feel bad leaving someone out by the time I wander to the end. 

In that spirit, here’s a list of shout outs to those that aren’t mentioned out elsewhere in a less listy fashion. 
(With probably more focus on comedy than there should be for a group this musically talented):

Tess Soltau and Robin DeJesus as Marty and Doody-
(Hee Hee, Doody…sorry, I’m still five sometimes.)
They both led from self-depreciating humor into period perfect executions of fifties style songs. (“Freddy My Love” and “Magic Changes” respectively, plus a duet each) 
Note for people who only know the movie: Grease is supposed to be in the Fifties.  That may not be obvious with the songs cut from, and written for the film.

Leela Rothenberg as Jan performed her side of the “Mooning” duet with sly fun, but also the grace and soulfulness to turn a song about indecent exposure into a romantic ballad.

During “Beauty School Drop Out”, Dana Steingold as Frenchy was at the absolute end of her rope, and the audience connected to her fear and sense of being lost.  Then her reaction to “unless she was a hooker” was one of the biggest laughs of the show.

Sonny as played by Tommy Bracco was a pervert…
But a loveable pervert.
It takes some serious comic chops to pull that combo off.

The “adults” both balanced opposites well.  Joey Sorge as Vince Fontaine oozed charisma “on camera,” and simply oozed when off.  Miss Lynch, played by Donna English, was intensely clenched most of the time, making her unclench moments all the funnier.

Another balancing act was Patty.  Eloise Kropp added just enough sweetness to keep her from being completely annoying…or maybe it was just enough annoying to keep her from being completely sweet.  Whichever way, it worked for the overly perky head cheerleader.

Kat Nejat and Gillian Munsayac were other members of Rydell High along with the Dance Captain.  They all filled the stage with energy and excitement in the crowd scenes.  The women both had dancing moments to shine (no mean feat with this assembly) as Cha Cha and the “Rock and Roll Party Queen” respectively. 

The swings Kate Bailey and Mike Longo may have been in the group scenes as well. I’m not sure based on my lack of knowledge about what a “swing” is, and my inability to count people and tap my feet at the same time. 

Greased Lightning” is a song made out of pure awesome.  In order to pull it off successfully, one must bring a rather large pile of personal awesome to the event.  Shane Donovan’s Kenickie did just that.

Speaking of awesome, the special effects geek in me was impressed with the car transformation in that song.  As usual with on stage effects, it was a combination of what would be an “in camera” practical effect on film, and a magic trick.  Of course, since Kenickie was approximately eight feet tall and proportionally built, it’s possible he simply carried the old car out when the strobe light came on, and lugged the new one in.

Yes, movie fans. That is who’s supposed to sing “Greased Lightning.”

Grease is kind of unusual, because of the movie’s influences on the play it came from. Several songs from the film were added into the stage version, some replacing original numbers.  Film also requires that the focus be shifted on to the main characters and away from the ensemble.  Luckily that change was not made, and the opportunities for each of the excellent cast members to have their moments in the spotlight remained. 

They also left in the period accurate smoking, which needed to be explained to the righteously indignant children in the audience during intermission.

One area that did change from both the play and the film was some of the language.  It’s probably due to the popularity of the movie with the younger set that those welcome changes were made to some of the harsher words.  This created a more family friendly atmosphere, particularly in “Greased Lightning”.  Fortunately, Rizzo’s perfect rhyme for “drool” at the end of “Sandra Dee” was untouched.  Sometimes, profanity is the right answer.

I need to stop again, and point out that Morgan Weed as Rizzo nailed the comic cruelty of that number, and pulled nearly the diametrically opposite set of emotions from the crowd in Act Two with “The Worst Thing I Could Do.”

That song used as originally designed with Rizzo talking to Sandy and leading into the reprise of “Sandra Dee” makes a heck of a lot more sense for both numbers.  It gave added strength and independence to the two characters in contrast to the movie versions.  Because they each sing alone in the film, it shifted the focus from the lyrics being explanations of their choices, to being simply fawning over boys who were more interested in a car race than the ladies.  A race that shouldn’t have been there, might I add.

In case my daughter reads this: 
No, having the advice come from another woman still does not make it acceptable to change your entire personality and dress like a tramp to impress a guy.
I REALLY do not understand why girls love this story.

As long as I’m pointing out impressive female vocals, I should probably mention Taylor Louderman as Sandy in general and specifically her filling the theater with only her voice on “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” She imbued the song with far more personal power and strength than you’d think those sentiments could hold.

Of course, the reason we went was to see Bobby.  The whole “amazing theatrical experience” thing was a nice side effect.  Honestly, we arrived fully expecting to be impressed, because we’ve heard him sing live.  When he’s sung at his grandparent’s parties, even though those rooms weren’t built for stage acoustics, his numbers (Selections from Les Mis,”Hallelujah” etc.) always came off as “Epic.” 

However, we were still completely blown away by what we saw on stage at the Paper Mill.  We knew he could do Epic, but, man, the kid can Rock ‘n Roll too…

Then toss in some of that Epic sound where it made sense to add a proper theatrical edge, like when he owned the stage from the top of the car in “Sandy…” 

And do physical comedy, such as right before singing “Sandy” when he executed an expertly timed pratfall collapse after getting his “Zukos” bashed by the car door.

And dance.  As my sister so aptly summed up his ability in this area we’d never seen before, “HOLY CRAP!”
Yes, we're quite the cultured bunch of theater goers.

He also acted well enough to make Danny extremely likeable.  That’s a true accomplishment considering, (with the exception of the “romance on the beach” film shown beforehand - a rare nice steal from the movie) Danny essentially behaved like a jerk throughout the entire play.

We made sure to go to the stage door; both to extend well-deserved compliments, and also in case standing in proximity to him would jump start some of that genetic material in our kids.

Side question:  Since every play has a stage door, and they’re almost never hidden, why don’t more people stop by?  Seriously theater goers, you were just allowed to feel like a part of the intense amount of development work, practice and talent used to distill pure emotions in a live performance. Stop by and thank some of the people responsible.  No other art form allows that level of immediacy for gratitude, feedback and complements. Take advantage of it.

Returning to those compliments…

The movie performances for Grease are considered iconic by its large fan base, and those characters are mostly stereotypes to begin with.  Yet somehow Bobby pulled off making Danny Zuko completely his own.

Actually, that goes for the rest of the cast as well.  I’m not sure how the portrayal of Eugene as a typical nerd could NOT end up looking like an Eddie Deezen impression.  For information on that trick, ask Sean Patrick Doyle, because he did it.

Now as a major surprise to absolutely no one, I’m going to contradict myself once more.

Though I’m clearly not much of a fan of the movie, when there is an iconic version of something it deserves to be referenced.  They did this admirably.

Some were traditional selections- e.g. having a known actor, in this case Glee’s Telly Leung, pull of a show stopping one scene wonder moment as the Teen Angel. 

Others were short, instantly recognizable, direct references to the film, such as:

A) Though the old gang will always be cooler, thanks to a certain Australian singer, I doubt anyone will ever use Carole from the Magic Garden’s delivery ever again for, “Tell me about it, stuuuud.”

B)  While it was Bobby’s version of Danny throughout (with maybe a coincidental hint of Brad Majors for, “You just can't walk out of a drive in!”) the pre-intermission “We Go Together” featured him spouting a very Vinnie Barbarino-ish, “"A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!"

I think that’s always been one of my biggest problems with the movie. I can’t unsee the Sweathog since the personalities are far too close.  He treats Sandy exactly the same way he treated Judy Borland back at Buchannan high, but without anyone pointing out that his behavior should in no way be applauded or encouraged.  Where’s Mr. Kotter when you need him? Travolta even did the “Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-barino” elbow flapping dance in his stolen “Greased Lightning” number.

The Vinnie Effect is why I couldn’t watch the Thomas Jane Punisher either.

Oh look, I’ve babbled on long enough to work my way back to a stupid movie.
I must be done.

In conclusion, the show was awesome, the cast was amazing, and my daughter and her cousins left the theater singing, playing with their souvenir switch blade combs and asking for the CD to be played in the car continuously for days.  If you get a chance to see it, give a standing ovation for our cousin and the rest of the gang at Rydell.

They more than deserve it.

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