A review of the ’50s-nostalgia musical “Grease” at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
Approaching the ebullient new staging of “Grease” at the 5th Avenue Theatre one wonders: When did the ongoing nostalgia craze for ’50s pop culture kick in?
One landmark is the 1971 arrival of “Grease,” the spoofy, good-times musical comedy inspired by co-creator Jim Jacobs’ teen years at Chicago’s William Taft High School.
Jacobs and co-writer/co-composer Warren Casey’s exuberant romp about the hot-rodding, rock ’n’ roll-loving, leather jacketed “greaser” set and their main squeezes, the Pink Ladies, was a gloss on reality and a smash from the start.
By Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Through Aug. 2, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; Tickets start at $29 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
Maybe because we Americans are such suckers for eras that look better in the rearview mirror, “Grease” not only had a long, long Broadway run and snagged numerous Tony Awards. It also spawned a cheese-tastic hit movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, best-selling recordings of the score, a sequel film, and inspired shows such as the TV sitcom “Happy Days” and countless other homages to an allegedly more innocent era of adolescence.
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Literally thousands of productions of “Grease” later, do we really need another one? Well, no. But let’s not be a killjoy: For those so inclined, the 5th Avenue show will be a non-nutritional summer treat — the equivalent of a Good Humor truck ice cream run, but with better music.
Directed by Eric Ankrim, it gives a platoon of young Seattle talents a chance to shine. There isn’t a weak vocalist in the cast (though they’d all be better served by less harsh, excessive miking). They’ve all got the show’s dumb wiseacre banter down. And thanks to a wealth of dance moves choreographed by Chryssie Whitehead, they’re often in buoyant motion.
The plot is as silly as an old Archie-and-Veronica comic book. Sandra (Solea Pfeiffer) is the goody-good new girl at Rydell High. Her summer crush, Danny Zuko (Bryan Gula), bows to guy peer pressure and initially spurns her. His punky friends’ girls, led by the tart-tongued class harlot Rizzo (Kirsten deLohr Helland) and ditzy beautician wannabe Frenchy (Sarah Rose Davis), corrupt Sandy with their wine chugging, Hit Parade ciggies and scorn for virginity.
Today this scenario would be a Lifetime movie about bullying, with everything (including a pregnancy scare) smeared all over Twitter.
But then, “Grease” (seen here in a stage version that’s grittier and racier than the PG-13 movie) usually gets a pass for insisting Sandy’s social salvation is a trampy makeover and putting out for Danny. (Discuss among yourselves.)
High spirits prevail, thanks in good part to the fizzy Jacobs-Casey score stuffed with tunes that deftly echo such ’50s pop genres as Everly Brothers-style harmony (“Rock ’n’ Roll Party Queen”); over-the-top love songs (“Hopelessly Devoted to You”); and pity-party ballads (“It’s Raining on Prom Night”).
The avid multiracial cast (who in the real 1950s probably wouldn’t have partied together, but why not in 2015?) take turns with the power songs, with Helland, Davis and the Whitney Houston-esque Pfeiffer killing it for the gals, and Gula, Patrick Shelton (as the mooning-mad Roger) and Kyle Robert Carter (Teen Angel) for the guys.
In the big singalong setpieces (“Summer Nights,” “We Go Together”) everyone pours it on, spurred by the onstage band led by music director R.J. Tancioco. Billy Joe Huels and his popular Seattle band the Dusty 45s are also in residence for your listening pleasure, before and during the show.