Review: The Original Grease (American Theater Company)

  
  

Now extended through August 21st!!

 

This show %#&*ing rocks!

  
  

(L to R) Carol Rose, Tony Clarno, Jessica Diaz, Robert Colletti, Kelly Davis Wilson, Adrian Aguilar and Tyler Ravelson in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

  
American Theater Company presents
   
The Original Grease
   
Book/Music/Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed by PJ Paparelli
at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $45-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Foul-mouthed, raunchy, and absolutely not for children (although I’d think my parents were the coolest if they took me to this), American Theater Company’s The Original Grease is how Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s classic musical was meant to be seen. Forget the Bee Gees and the Australian accents, this Grease is northwest Chicago all the way, and ATC’s production takes pride in its urban heritage, presenting a grittier, yet still effervescently youthful Rydell High Class of 1960. What surprised me most about The Original Grease wasn’t the profanity or sexual explicitness, but how much more of an ensemble piece the stage version is than the movie. Sandy (Kelly Davis Wilson) and Danny (Adrian Aguilar) romance is the spine of the plot, but the relationships between the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies are fleshed out considerably. Minor characters like Patty Simcox (Alaina Mills) and Miss Lynch (Peggy Roeder) even get their own solos.

Adrian Aguilar and Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerThe show begins at the Class of 1960’s 50-year reunion, where a gleeful/wasted Patricia Simcox Honeywell (Susan Fay) invites the audience to take a trip down memory lane with a slide show of nostalgic Chicago locales that seques into the main action of the play in 1959. Shout outs to Palmer House, Carson’s, and Jewel root the show firmly in Chicago, and “Foster Beach” replaces “Summer Nights” as the recap of Sandy and Danny’s summer tryst. The new (old?) emphasis on the city firmly establishes the setting, but also alters the dynamic within the group of high schoolers. You get the impression that these are kids that have grown up together for most of their lives, and Sandy Dumbrowski’s transformation becomes less of a unique experience, but more of a typical teenage transformation as a way to fit in.

Above all else, The Original Grease succeeds because of the friendship cultivated among the group, a sense of camaraderie that climaxes in a spectacular a cappella arrangement of “We Go Together” at the end of Act One. As the gang pounds beer and passes cigarettes in the Cook County Forest Preserve they break into the film’s closing number, and the nonsensical lyrics have a different impact when they are the drunk ramblings of a group of teenagers. I’m a sucker for rain on stage, so the end of the number his all the right notes, and the ensemble’s unaccompanied vocals blend flawlessly. I wish that Sandy were in the number so Willis could add her brassy vocals to the song, but it’s just another way The Original Grease makes the audience encourage Sandy’s transformation.

Willis’ clean-cut appearance suggest the naïve Sandy that the audience is familiar with, but she shows her character’s fiery side well before her final metamorphosis. The moments where Sandy loses her temper make her change more believable but also make her a worthy opponent for Aguilar, who perfectly captures the lovable asshole vibe of the cocky Danny Zuko. Danny isn’t a very sympathetic character, and he never really pines after Sandy in this production, as “Alone At The Drive-In Movie” is transferred back to it’s original owner Kenickie (Tony Clarno) as a desperate ballad to the absent, potentially pregnant Rizzo (Jessica Diaz). Danny’s change is not about gaining Sandy’s acceptance, and is instead motivated by Danny’s desire to explore his potential.

(L to R) Bubba Weiler, Tyler Ravelson, Robert Colletti, Patrick De Nicola, Adrian Aguilar in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerPJ Paparelli excels at emphasizing the ways these characters leave their childhoods behind, and during Danny’s solo “How Big I’m Gonna Be,” Danny’s ambition forces him to leave the Burger Palace Boys to become the type of man that might be able to escape working in a factory with the same people’s he’s been surrounded by all his life. By the end of the show, each of the main characters has had to deal with an important teenage problem, and walks away having learned a valuable lesson. Frenchy (Jessie Fisher) finds out its hard to follow your dreams without a high school diploma and Rizzo learns the consequences of a broken condom, while Sandy and Danny show two opposite views of the same issue: changing for the one you love. These are the issues that teenagers have dealt with in the past and will continue to face in the future, an idea that is hammered home by Miss Lynch’s “In My Day,” which brings everything around full circle. Presiding over the reunion, Patricia Simcox Honeywell has become Miss Lynch, reminiscing about days gone by that seem like only yesterday.

The cast of The Original Grease is a remarkably gifted group of actors, whose singing and dancing prowess are matched by their comedic and dramatic chops. Diaz’s Rizzo has a nonchalant confidence that makes her a natural leader, and Diaz captures Rizzo’s struggle to keep up her tough appearance during the powerful “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Carol Rose’s sultry Marty is the sexy Pink Lady, and she nails “Freddy My Love,” the doo wop tribute to Marty’s Marine boyfriend during the Pink Ladies sleepover. Fisher’s clueless yet good-intentioned Frenchy is a constant source of comic relief along with the sloppy, silly Jan (Sadieh Rifal), who (L to R) Carol Rose, Jessie Fisher, Kelly Davis Wilson, Sadieh Rifai, Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beinerdevelops an adorable romance with Burger Palace Boy Roger (Rob Colletti).

Among the boys, Tony Clarno gives Kenickie a ferocity that burns through the comic playfulness of his friends, and the aggression he brings to the characters makes his drive-in breakdown an even stronger moment. Patrick De Nicola’s Sonny steals the show, though, as he constantly tries to assume an assertive role in the group but lacks the confidence and competence of alpha males Danny and Kenickie. Sonny’s attempts to be cool constantly blow up in his face, but once he brings Cha-Cha (Hannah Gomez) to the dance, Sonny goes from hilarious to gut-busting. The two have fantastic chemistry, and Gomez’s Cha-Cha is considerably different from the film version and all the better for it, and pairing her up with Sonny instead of Danny is another way that the stage version expands the world of these characters.

The Original Grease is what I’d like Grease to be all the time. These are characters that talk and act like real kids, with real problems that don’t always have easy answers. There are a few balance issues between the actors and the band that prevents the show from being perfect, but it is a must-see for all fans of the musical in all its iterations. At least for those that won’t mind the colorful language and provocative choreography, because those aren’t gear shifts the boys are grabbing at the end of “Greased Lightning.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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Review: Hobo Junction’s “Horrible”

 

“Horrible” Haunted by Shoddy Script

 

Hobo Junction presents:

Horrible

by Josh Zagoren
directed by Breahan Eve Pautsch
thru December 19th (tickets: 773-935-6100)

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Terrible-poster Either the criteria of what constitutes a dark comedy expanded and no one bothered to tell us, or Hobo Junction Productions is misinformed. The theater company’s recent aptly named piece Horrible is being touted as a macabre comedy, but really the scariest element of the production is the script (written by ensemble member Josh Zagoren), which has more holes in it than a victim of an icepick attack.

This isn’t to say the play lacks ghoulish elements. It features quaint depictions of cannibalism, ghostly hauntings and murder. But it lacks the two most critical elements of a dark comedy: cynicism and comedy. In fact, by the end of the play, you will feel as if you just watched an adaptation of a Hallmark card illustrated by Edward Gorey. Sure it might elicit a chuckle, but really it’s just trite, hokey material that scratches the shallowest surface of the human condition.

The play focuses on two families, the Garrishes and the Goodlys, both of whom begin with a dead parent and a dying parent. Malcolm Garrish (Mike Tepeli) is a workaholic doctor. His transvestite brother (Kaelan Strouse) is his assistant, and both are haunted by their father (Elliott Fredland) who is awaiting the death of the Garrish matriarch (Judi Schindler).

Meanwhile, on the other side of town—or the stage rather—lives Holly Goodly (Madeline Chilese), a poor young woman who does anything she can to support herself and her blind sister (Cyra K. Polizzi), even if that means feasting on human flesh to ward off starvation. The Goodly sisters are haunted by their mother (Tara Generalovich) who is awaiting the death of her drunkard husband (Bob Pries).

 

Horrible-Madeline-Chilese horrible-Mike-Tepeli

Soon into the play, the sickly elders from both families kick the bucket, and the lifelines of Malcolm and Holly collide at the town cemetery. Of course, they immediately fall for each other and a courtship begins. Meanwhile, their respective parents, having nothing better to do, pester them about their love lives from beyond the grave. As Malcolm and Holly carry on, the question of how she will hide her horrible secret looms.

There is also a narrator (Keith Redmond), onstage musical accompanists and news of a serial killer about town, a plot point that not only makes the production an overstuffed mess, but also derails the play into eye-rolling territory by the end.

Simply put, the biggest weakness of this play is its script. The story feels very much like a first draft and can benefit greatly from some additional table reads and multiple rewrites. For example, superfluous characters abound, such as Holly’s blind sister and Malcolm’s transvestite brother, who served no real purpose and received minimal characterization. (Blindness and transvestitism is about as deep as it gets.)

Characterization was also nonexistent for the protagonists. Malcolm and Holly’s love feels contrived and cliché, something we’ve seen countless times before in any teenage romantic comedy. There is also no effort to make either multi-dimensional. One’s a workaholic and one’s a cannibal, but there really isn’t a whole lot else to go on. The parental ghosts add a little comic fancy, but they could have been a riot if they weren’t written as North Shore cardboard cutouts.

Horrible-Mike-Tepeli-Madaline-Chilese The jokes are reminiscent of a bad Henny Youngman routine, with one-liners and puns comprising the majority of what is supposed to be the comedy. Whereas the dialogue could inform character or plot, it just sits there as a cheap laugh that stops the action of the play. There should have been more focus on building comedic situations, but then again that would have required creating well-rounded characters to create situations around.

There are some nice things to say about Horrible. For one, the musical accompaniment (composed by company member Dan Pearce), is entertaining and does more to set the tone than any part of the actual play. With only a guitar and a baritone sax, the two musicians create gritty tunes, evoking the spirit of Tom Waits. In addition, Strouse as the transvestite brother stole many scenes, not because he was donning a dress, but because his inflection and facial expressions breathed much life into an otherwise figuratively dead character.

At best, Horrible is a half-baked play that was prematurely produced before the writer could fix the script’s shortcomings. At its worst, it’s a frightening example of a directionless piece whose banality will haunt you.

Rating: ★½

 

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