Story: Return with us now to 1959 for the senior year of the fun-loving kids at fictional Rydell High School (anyone else remember Bobby Rydell?). It seems that over the summer, Danny Zuko, leader of a group of school greasers known as the T-Birds, had a romance with a chick named Sandy Dumbrowski.
Sandy had planned to go to a Catholic high school in the fall, but ends up at Rydell High with the ‘publics.’ When Danny sees Sandy talking with the rebel Pink Ladies group led by Betty Rizzo, he changes his mood from excitement to a ‘cool’ indifference, lest his pals think he’s getting mushy with romance.
Sandy is confused and hurt, but in the course of the year evolves from a shy, sweet girl into one of the tough-talking, independent Pink Ladies, even as Danny softens his edge by going out for the track team and apologizing of sorts to Sandy. Is he the one that she wants, or not?
Highlights: Since its debut on Broadway way back in 1972, Grease has been an anthem for reminiscence and recollections of American high school kids then and now. When its original run closed in 1980, Grease was the longest-running musical in Broadway history and still ranks 15th all-time. It’s also spawned a West End run, numerous revivals and touring productions and, of course, the blockbuster 1978 movie starring John Travolta (then a ‘sweathog’ on TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter) and Australian pop singer Olivia Newton-John.
The Muny has presented Grease at least every eight years since it first obtained the rights back in 1982, and more than 9,000 fans on opening night were testament to the show’s enduring popularity. The current version playing on The Muny stage borrows from the 1993 revival, which added some tunes from the film to the musical. Director/choreographer Denis Jones, the talent behind The Muny’s memorable 2012 production of Chicago, helms this rendition of Grease with the same flair and pizzazz, resulting in an evening that goes by way too quickly, leaving the appreciative audience longing for more Greased Lightnin.’
Other Info: Grease is packed with memorable, finger-snapping, good-time tunes, from the title song up front to the show-closing rocker, You’re the One That I Want, which was added to the Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey score after its chart-topping success in the movie. The title number was written by one of the Bee Gees, Barry Alan Gibb, and a couple of other songs were penned by John Farrar, Scott Simon and Louis St. Louis. All of them, though, share an infectious, upbeat signature.
Jones cleverly opens and closes this version with a high school graduation number, Alma Mater, which smoothly segues at the beginning into the title tune as players convert their graduation gowns into the ‘hip’ looks of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies. Andrea Lauer’s costumes are a hit throughout the show, including the outlandish attire adorning Teressa Kindle when she emerges from a set piece to warble Beauty School Dropout to Frenchy with a brash, no-holds-barred style that brings down the house.
For the second week in a row, The Muny’s LED screen visually contributes to the production, courtesy of video designer Matthew Young, especially on a very inventive version of Greased Lightnin’ that provides a ‘car wash’ for Kenickie’s newly named jalopy. It’s accompanied by a lively dance number orchestrated by Jones that fills The Muny stage with kids washin’ and waxin’ heaven on wheels.
Timothy Mackabee’s set design serves nicely as maneuverable pieces of background scenery, such as bleachers or school lockers and even a second-level where Sandy can lament missing her high school prom, as well as billboard-sized ads of the era. One curious gaffe in Jones’ spirited production, though, is having the Teen Angel simply walk off the stage rather than have her return the same magical way in which she entered.
Nathan Scheuer’s lighting design adds focus and highlights to several solo numbers, Jason Krueger revs up the sound design for Greased Lightnin’ and Michael Horsley’s musical direction is outstanding all night long, with an emphasis on brass instruments to accentuate the beat of 1950s rock. In addition to the orchestra in the pit, Grease features an on-stage band comprised of Tadgh Duhig, Max Fiorello, Matt Howard, Isaiah Lopez, Brax Melvin, Braden Phillips and Jack Wight.
Jones has assembled a tight cast that contributes handsomely to the production’s quick pace and vibrant numbers, including ex-Muny kid and teen Taylor Louderman as Sandy and St. Louis native Phyllis Smith as the no-nonsense English teacher Miss Lynch.
Brandon Espinoza brings the charisma and charm of Danny to the fore in his portrayal, which suffers only in the finale when he can’t overcome the iconic Travolta performance on You’re the One That I Want (no such troubles for Louderman, though, as Sandy).
Others adding to the high reading on the enjoyment meter are Drew Foster as Kenickie, Arianda Fernandez as Kenickie’s tough-talking love interest Rizzo and Matt Saldivar as the rhyming, omnipresent DJ, Vince Fontaine.
Tyler Bradley Indyck has a nice turn as guitar-learning Doody, whose number Those Magic Changes features some entertaining backup by the T-Birds. L’Ogan Jones is the conniving Sonny LaTierri, Larry Owens and Amelia Jo Parish are an appealing couple as the chunky Roger and Jan, and Madison Johnson is the amiable Frenchy.
Natalie Kaye Clater is the appropriately attractive Marty, Rhiannon Hanson brings out all of cheerleader Patty’s chipper, chirpy ways, Sean Seymour is the gangly, nerdy Eugene and Sarah Meahl tears up the dance floor with Danny as dance queen extraordinaire Cha Cha DiGregorio.
Grease still is the word for a rockin’ good time, particularly when a torrent of talent such as Jones is the engine stoking the musical machinery.
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through August 8
Tickets: Free to $85; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer and Eric Woolsey