Starring Jay Hemphill, Ilyse Gordon, Jennifer Casey Thompson and Jason Button. Artistic Director: John R. Leffert. Technical Director: Monty Fields. Presented by the Jewish Community Center’s CenterStage Theatre. Continues through Aug. 12. For tickets or more info, call 459-0660.
It seems the nation is hungry for fun musicals that hearken to a simpler time — like “Grease,” which is currently in previews for its Broadway revival. (That cast was picked from a reality TV show.) Maybe the war’s atrocities and the dismal presidential leadership have pushed our country deeper into depression, but I predict we’ll see more of these fluffy shows as we look for wilder diversions.
The fluff in “Grease” is most apparent in the storyline. It extols the virtues of conformity, making it the anti-“Hairspray” (which is also set in the idealized past of rock ’n’ roll, but which counsels, “Be yourself”). It is also a warped view of the 1950s filtered through 1970s (and post-Watergate) sensibilities, making its themes doubly dated today. Add to that a large cast of characters that is uniformly unlikable — from the teachers who harass the greaser boys who pick on the nerds who lust after the “Pink Ladies” on down.
It has other inherent flaws that make it a difficult play to stage. “Grease” also demands that the audience suspend disbelief about older people playing children, and requires myriad set changes. Here, directors certainly have their work cut out.
In CenterStage’s production, the director has tried to mitigate the latter problem by having the entire show take place on an enormous wooden replica of a record player, which takes up three quarters of the small stage. (The remaining area is usually taken up when the “Greased Lightning” automobile is laboriously hauled into place between scenes.) This arrangement demands substantial imagination from audience members, who are left to suss out the location of each scene or to squint to see program notes in the dark.
The only elements left to bank on are providing well-sung songs and an infectious sense of fun. And the cast managed to provide that needed sense. Everyone on stage seemed genuinely to be having a great time. Even when parts of the production weren’t quite working, including the second act, which was muddled with songs and events that meandered with no sense of pacing or linear logic, the actors bravely did the best they could.
Indeed, every single actor in the ensemble was loaded with talent. Jay Hemphill breathed life into Danny Zuko, one of the weakest lead roles in theater. Ilyse Gordon was charming as Sandy and brought a sense of realism to the often painfully exaggerated caricatures the female actors were forced to portray. Jason Button was a phenomenal dancer as Kenickie, Danny’s hoodlum buddy, especially when doing a series of back-flips across the stage. (If only he’d been given more room to dance.) Jennifer Casey Thompson, however, completely stole the show as the cynical Rizzo without even trying. Not only were her acting, singing and dancing top-notch, she has a commanding stage presence that had me watching her more than the leads.
Still, with almost no room on stage to dance and few opportunities in the dialogue to provide shining moments of acting, this production of “Grease” fails in the final analysis. Other drawbacks were the sound system, which amplified unevenly with vocals that were too loud, and a few actors who sang off-key. Despite all the faults in “Grease,” the talented performers in this production had me leaving the theater smiling and humming. Let’s hope they all get better work next time. They truly deserve it.