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: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Drury Lane)

 

Dynamic choreography, rousing leading lady save flawed musical

 

 (L-R) Cara Salerno, Vanessa Panerosa, Amber Mak, Hallie Cercone, Abby Mueller, Katie Huff, and Amanda Kroiss star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

        
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
   
Book by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Music/Lyrics by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Johnny Mercer
Directed by Bill Jenkins
Musical Direction by
Roberta Duchak
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

In the 1954 movie musicalSeven Brides for Seven Brothers”, when men kidnap women and trick them into marriage, it’s not Stockholm syndrome, it’s love. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of those movie musicals that is a product of its time, when women were looked at as little more than glorified housekeepers and baby makers, born to do the will of their man. When Adam Pontipee (Steve Blanchard) deceives the sassy Milly (Abby Mueller) into marrying him, his six brothers set out to capture wives for themselves, ambushing six town girls and throwing them in the back of their wagon. It’s offensive, but the music is jovial and melodic, the dancing is energetic and plentiful, and the film’s leading man Howard Keel’s booming voice and charming smile make it difficult to despise the chauvinistic Adam.

(L-R) Richard Strimer (Benjamin) and Abby Mueller (Milly) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett BeinerMy problems with the stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers arise from its attempts to flesh out the characters, which sounds like a good thing but ends up backfiring by making them even shallower. The solos do very little to make you sympathize with the characters, with Milly’s “One Man” beginning as a condemnation of her husband’s trickery before devolving into a tribute to female subservience. Conversely, Adam’s big Act Two moment of redemption “Where Were You?” attempts to justify his sexism by giving him a daddy complex, blaming his actions on his absent father instead of taking responsibility himself. It’s not difficult to assume that Adam’s behavior is a product of his environment, but when it is put into song it just makes the already unlikable character seem pathetic. Blanchard’s vocals don’t help matters, lacking the timbre and strength expected from an 1850 frontiersman. And while the added ensemble numbers manage to evoke the musical style of the film, the solos and smaller group sequences have a contemporary feel that is out of place with the rest of the show’s classic musical theater sound.

The highlight of the production is easily Milly and her relationship with her six brothers-in-law. Mueller’s crystal clear tone and powerful belt make her musical numbers stand out, and she has great chemistry with her new relatives as she assumes a dominating mother position in the household. Watching the brothers transform under Milly’s feminine influence is a joy, from learning to dance in “Goin’ Courtin’” to finally appreciating their women in the heartfelt “Glad That You Were Born.” With the brothers, there is evidence of a struggle between the uncivilized way they’ve been brought up and the restraint that makes for successful courting. “We Gotta Make It Through The Winter” is a hilarious exclamation of horny frustration, but it is followed by Daniel (William Travis-Taylor) and Frank (Brandon Springman) ruminating on the somber effects of loneliness in the beautiful “Lonesome Polecat.”

 

(L-R)  Abby Mueller (Milly) and Steve Blanchard (Adam) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner (L-R) Richard Strimer, Jarret Ditch, William Travis Taylor, Chris Yonan, Brandon Springman and (back) Zach Zube star in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Photo by Brett Beiner.

The brothers learning to dance comes in handy for Tammy Mader’s intense, dynamic choreography. Maybe the reason Adam and Milly’s romance never blossoms on stage is because they don’t have a nice dance together like the brothers and their brides. There isn’t much depth to these characters and their affection for each other, but the substance appears in their dancing, when the chemistry really ignites. The extended town dance sequence in Act I is a mesmerizing affair, albeit a little chaotic and unclear at times, while an Act II all-bride dream ballet brings some sensuality to the affair.

Like the film, this production is propelled by its dancing, but bodies in movement can’t overcome all the flaws of the writing. The changes to the film give the story a more modern context, and the attempt to psychoanalyze the characters through song removes much of the musical’s charm. Drury Lane’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a polished, well-performed production, but the questionable source material prevents it from rising to true greatness.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

(L-R) Chris Yonan, Hallie Cercone, Jarret Ditch, and Cara Salerno star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

 

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REVIEW: Ragtime (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Drury Lane scores big with epic musical “Ragtime”

RAGTIME-_The_cast

 
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
 
Ragtime
 
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
by
Terrance McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics)
directed/choreographed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook (map)
through May 23 (more info)

By Katy Walsh

‘What can happen in a year?’ Father’s question is an expectation that life is simple and predictable.

BF1C0838 The reality is birth, death, emancipation, persecution, obsession, syncopation. In 1906, the regularity in life takes unexpected turns as Drury Lane Oakbrook presents Ragtime The Musical. The show focuses on the lives of three groups: WASPs, blacks, and immigrants. In the New York suburbs, a wealthy family breaks the monotony with wild excursions and celebrity stalking. In Harlem, a successful black piano player decides to search for his lost love. Just off the boat, an Jewish immigrant artist and his daughter arrive with nothing but optimistic anticipation. Three distinctly different rhythms unexpectedly intersect to create a new tune. Ragtime celebrates a year in American history by paralleling the adaption of ragtime music with socio-economic changes of the time period. The results are a stunning history lesson intertwined with melodies of hope and change.

Under the skillful direction and choreography of Rachel Rockwell, the tempo never misses a beat. Rockwell strikes all the right notes with this multi-talented cast. Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse) is the powerhouse of emotional range in song and act. His tune changes throughout the show – regret, love, vengeance. Darrington connects the audience with his story based on heart wrenching hope. His “The Wheels of a Dream” duet with Valisia LeKae (Sarah) is flawless. LeKae is a perfect match-up and their onstage chemistry is the epic-love-story-kind. Cory Goodrich (Mother) is marvelous in an understated and nonchalant way. Goodrich’s character changes her family’s life dramatically with simple choices. Her transformation is most baffling to Father played by Larry Adams. In a pivotal song, Adams is perplexed as he sings, ‘I thought I knew what love was but these lovers play different music.’

With inspirational paternal love, Mark David Kaplan (Tateh) chases a train for a teary-eyed audience impact. Alongside the principals, smaller and famous roles engage curiosity. Emma Goldman (Catherine Lord) influences as a social reformer. Evelyn Nesbit (Summer Naomi Smart) is the Brittany Spears of the time period…whee! Harry Houdini (Stef Tovar) mystifies as a successful immigrant. Booker T. Washington (James Earl Jones II) commands integration and respect.

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Surprisingly, this blockbuster musical starts with a stark stage. The introduction of characters is a popped up portrait of perfection. Literally, group entrances are elevated from below stage. As the three groups multiply across the stage, the unique flair of costume distinction, designed by Santo Loquasto, is a spectacular visual. Costumes, projections, lighting, moments of tasty eye candy decorate this show. From silhouettes marching to swimmers bathing, the imagery dances to the ragtime.

And there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime. Giving the nation a new syncopation.  The people called it Ragtime!’

Paralleling life’s happenstance, my performance had some twists not necessarily planned. There seemed to be an issue with lighting up the solo singers in the first few scenes. A momentary blip broke the backdrop illusion with a ‘Microsoft word computer screen’ projection. Initially, the audio seemed hollow. I was uncertain if it was a microphone or acoustic issue. It either cleared up or my engrossment made it a moot point. All in all, this production was amazing. It left me reinforced that a gesture of kindness changes life’s courses and bewildered about men’s obsessions with cars.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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