The Showbuzz: Musical Theatre West’s “Grease” offers new look at nostalgia
By Sean McMullen
Oh, those summer nights so long ago drawn near by a familiar refrain.
Swirling onto the stage at Musical Theatre West, “Grease” is a fever dream of nostalgic fun. Does it make sense? Sort of. Does it deeply involve you in the inner lives of its characters? No.
Does it make you want to sing along? Absolutely!
“Grease” has always been designed to push all our sentimental buttons. In 1971, it was a comic and honest look at working class teens in Chicago. Most have no idea how foul-mouthed and accurately raunchy the original version was. It was a send-up of a time that was beginning to be idolized by conservatives as it was ending — a barbed reminder that there was a segment of society that didn’t get their American Dream over those previous 20 years.
Laced with F-bombs and dirty lyrics, it was scrubbed up some and redressed in the same glossy Hollywood package that it was spoofing. John Travolta and Olivia Newton John became my generation’s Frankie and Annette. There were still remnants of the raw glory of the 1971 script in lyrics of “Greased Lightning,” an ode to a jalopy that its owner dreams to be transformed.
This version at Musical Theatre West cleans it all up yet again, and creates a pastiche of the earlier version and the film. So, Greased Lightning, the “pussywagon” from my youth, becomes the much safer draggin’ wagon, and the girls will now simply scream at her sight. None of this however diminishes the vibrance of the music or the brightness with which it is performed.
The ensemble here, including the crew, had to fight their way through a rehearsal period hampered by several COVID positives. It has made them lean, mean, and determined that they will succeed in giving you a good time. The ensemble is an intentionally diverse group of folks, who in Executive Director Paul Garman’s own words are meant to reflect the beautiful diversity of Long Beach.
Rising to the top of a cast that is already cream are Monika Peña (Sandy) and Jonah Ho’okano (Danny). While the script doesn’t spend as much time with them as the film, it really isn’t their relationship and its reality that matters. It’s pulling at our heartstrings with the newly inserted “Hopelessly Devoted” and “Sandy.” With the track of the 1978 film playing on loop in most Gen Xers’ heads, these two do not disappoint.
Neither does the supporting cast of Isa Briones (Rizzo) and Kris Bona (Doody). Briones take of “There are Worse Things” and indeed her presence throughout felt most like that older version of the show, tough, seasoned, and visceral. Bona as Doody starts his energetic “Those Magic Changes” with a ukulele — a wonderful addition that I wish had been kept throughout.
The magnificent diversity of the cast was sort of hinted at by Director Snehal Desai. The ukulele doesn’t even make it to the end of the song. And later a Spanish introduction of a singer is followed by that singer doing the song entirely in English. I wish they had just leaned in hard.
Music Director Jan Roper and Choreographer Corey Wright clearly worked above and beyond to hold this delightful jigsaw puzzle of a show together, but the most inspired idea was the casting of Season 12 “RuPaul’s Drag Race” finalist Darius Rose “Jackie Cox” as Mrs. Lynch/Teen Angel. Rose will leave you wanting more, as she is a talented Queen with poise and perfect timing. She gives the final polish to this retro neon light of an evening that will leave you dreaming of Oh, those summer nights.
MTW’s “Grease” continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E Atherton St. through July 24., It’s not recommended for children younger than 14.
Tickets are $20-$96. More details can be found at musical.org.