Between the open wound of Vietnam and the outrage of Watergate Americans started looking backward to a time when they were mighty proud of themselves. The energy crisis, gas lines, rising unemployment, disintegrating nuclear families, and a crushing recession made the American '70s a less-than- comfortable temporal home, and it's impossible to say whether innocence or ignorance was the treasure we collectively sought as we turned our attentions and energies en masse to entertainments set amid the sock-hopping 1950s. Maybe we just needed to imagine a time when even a tattooed chain-fighting rock-and- roll rebel could love his girl as much as he did his country. The mass- mediated Eisenhower era was embraced by culture and counterculture alike. Sha Na Na was Sid and Nancy's favorite TV show. American Graffiti filled the big screen, Happy Days filled the little one, and on Broadway Grease was the word.
But 29 years after its premiere, poor old Grease appears toothless and weak. It seems more like an "every-hour-on-the-hour," red-white-and-blue amusement park revue than a Broadway musical. In fact, if Playhouse on the Square moved its current production to Libertyland and offered complimentary funnel cakes as part of the package, I'd give the project a rave review. But as it stands, unless you are the kind of person who gets all misty-eyed gazing upon your vast collection of "rockin'" Coca-Cola miniatures, there are no two good things to say about it. Don't even get me started about how utterly wrong the New Wavey synthesizer is. And what was the synthesizer set on? Harpsichord? We'll skip that part.
James Hunter's scenic design is so thoughtlessly by-the-numbers it could have easily been rented from Six Flags Over Duluth. It samples the same easy design tropes -- checkerboard patterns being the most common offender -- that have become synonymous with retro burger barns like Johnny Rockets and Rally's. The result is a spiritually bankrupt performance space signifying nothing but bland commercial replication. Where are all the chrome toasters and round Fiberglass lampshades with blue starburts? Where are Harley Earl's once-ubiquitous rocket-inspired designs, plastic slip cushions, and stores built to look like giant versions of the product they sell? Where are the things that made '50s design unique? Sadly enough, not at Playhouse on the Square.
The single most unsettling design elements are enlarged black- and-white portraits of Rydell High's student body. Intended to bring back memories of teary yearbook-signing parties in the old gymnasium, these creepy photocopies look more like something lifted directly from the back of a milk carton. Maybe somebody should scrawl "Stay sweet like you are" across one in big loopy cursive to avoid any less savory connotations. The lights (I guess there were lights) do nothing to help the audience follow the action in this cluttered, patched-together script that has been staged in a cluttered patched-together fashion.
And where was the grease, anyway? Grease is the anti- Hair. It's all about appearances, conformity, and trying to stand out while fitting in. It's about taming that mop on your head with a handful of Brillcream. Yet as top T-bird Danny Zucco, Ben Hensley looked like a poster boy for the Caucasian fro. Poor T-birds. You all look more like Ramones fans after a forced scrubbing. Oh, and how about some crew cuts for the nerds?
Shorey Walker, the director and choreographer responsible for such visual feasts as Chess and The Who's Tommy, just couldn't put all the pieces together this time around. Somehow she missed the simple fact that Grease is merely a doo-wop retooling of a Sigmund Romberg operetta. Its charm resonates from the naive sincerity behind all the thinly written play's superficial romantic concerns. Winking, ham-fisted acting from generally stunning performers like Kyle Barnette, Jo Lynne Palmer, Susan Boyle, and Courtney Ell leads me to believe that much of the blame for this lumbering, un-funny dud rests with the visiting director.
In an interview with Christopher Blank in The Commercial Appeal Walker commented on the need to "keep things real" in order to avoid comparisons to Circuit Playhouse's campy Zombie Prom. Priorities were obviously screwed from the git-go. Kitsch is an inevitable byproduct of any successful '50s resurrection because kitsch is deadly serious stuff that wasn't ever intended to be funny, funky, or "collectible." To avoid it is like avoiding the truth, and that's the big problem with this show. Nothing is true. It's a reflection of a reflection of a snapshot of something that never existed. How about a little John Hughes-style life-or-death desperation from these teens who want only to belong somewhere? How about the smell of popcorn at the drive-in movies? How about something we can latch onto; something that, regardless of when you were born, triggers emotions you haven't felt since you carved your girlfriend's name in a desk all those years ago? That's what Grease, another boomer- made bid for innocence and eternal youth, is for, after all. That's how you use it.
Grease is at Playhouse on the Square through August 12th.