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: A Doll’s House (Infamous Commonwealth)

  
  

Time-warping Ibsen to 1962 creates mixed results

  
  

Kate Cares and Stephen Dunn in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House", presented by Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

  
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
  
A Doll’s House
  
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Directed by
Chris Maher
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In traditional A Doll’s House productions, when Nora makes her infamous Act III departure, she’s presumably venturing out into a 19th-century world completely unaccustomed to female independence, her fate a mystery. During the last five minutes before the curtain closes, the Norwegian housewife becomes a radical icon for feminist and theatrical scholars to likely debate over for centuries to come.

Place that same ending in a 1962 New York apartment, and what happens? When Nora grabs her suitcase and heads for the door, we already know that a revolutionary wave of women’s liberation is waiting on the other side. Is she taking a risk? Sure. But is it still an iconic one? Not really. In fact, give her a month or two on her friend’s couch, and she’ll probably be fine.

Infamous Commonwealth Theatre debuts its sacrifice-themed 2011 season with this half-hearted update on A Doll’s House, directed by ICT Artistic Director Chris Maher.

Conceptually, a 60’s “Doll’s House” has potential, which a few glimmers of inspiration confirm. As Nora (played competently by Kate Cares) sashays around in her meticulously clean, gold-wallpapered home, she’s underscored by records of the era’s heart-tugging Christmas carols. Even when her family is on the verge of collapse, she maintains a pure, innocent image, not unlike the 60’s themselves—a turbulent decade ironically synonymous with child-like Technicolor and simplicity.

If only Maher took his idea further. Save for some cubed ice and retro furniture, there’s very little adaptation from more classic productions, and no, the inclusion of an excerpt from Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in the Playbill is not enough. The lack of investment is especially troublesome when it comes to the play’s language. Instead of highlighting A Doll’s House’s contemporary parallels, the semi-update mostly just brings forth the play’s inherent melodrama. Stephen Dunn (Torvald) deserves extra credit for being able to utter lines like “I don’t want any melodramatics!” without wincing, given the entirety of the play until that point is just that.

It’s all moot, really, since Maher’s production is hindered by elements far more basic than concept. Casting is the most notable.

As Krogstad, baby-faced Josh Atkins neither looks nor sounds the part of a blackmailing antagonist. Nothing states that Nora’s nemesis has to be a deep-voiced, brooding menace, but Atkins presumes that archetype while not having any of the physical or vocal characteristics to back it up. The result resembles a boy wearing his father’s suit. Cares does her blustering best to seem intimidated by Atkins’ threats, to little dramatic avail.

But no player is more troublesome than Genevieve Thompson, fatally cast as Nora’s confidante Kristine. Thompson recites almost all of her lines with forced exasperation. It sounds as if she’s giving a first table-reading, discovering her lines’ beats a moment or two after she’s said them. The interactions between her and Cares rarely seem to take place on the same page.

A few minor, distracting details go unnoticed by the production team, like Nora’s Act I synthetic-fabric dress. Some lines are muffled under the snowsuit-like material (“Let’s not swish swish talk business. It’s so boring! swish.”)

Scenes between Nora and Torvald are this “Doll’s House’s” saving grace. Dunn and Cares effectively capture Ibsen’s intentionally blurred familial relationship between husband and wife. To Torvald, Nora is his spouse, but treats her as his child. He wags his finger in parental disapproval when he catches her sneaking some sweeties, only to later leer at her as she dances a sexually-charged Tarantella. When Nora kneels beside Torvald, it’s anyone’s guess whether she’s about to ask for candy or fellate him.

The duo preserves just enough integrity for a passable production. But even under new clothes, this is amateur-ish Ibsen, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Featuring: Josh Atkins, Kate Cares, Stephen Dunn, Barbara Roeder Harris, Amanda Roeder, Mark Shallow, and Genevieve Thompson

Production Team: Katherine Arfken (Scenic Design), Tom Aufmann (Technical Director), Sarah Gilmore (Assistant Stage Manager), Sarah Luse (Production Manager), Rachel M. Sypniewski (Costume Designer and Managing Director), Mac Vaughey (Lighting Designer), Chas Vbra (Sound Designer) and Cade Wenthe (Stage Manager).

REVIEW: On Golden Pond (Lincoln Square Theatre)

Everything but the romance on this ‘Pond’

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Lincoln Square Theatre presents
 
On Golden Pond
 
by Ernest Thompson
directed by Kristina Schramm
at
Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through June 12th  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

OGPpress4There’s much to admire about Lincoln Square Theatre’s tranquil, spare, and subtle rendering of Ernest Thompson’s 1978 breakout play On Golden Pond. For one, the pace of the entire production furnishes this American classic with an atmosphere of profound country quiet and ease, which colors all the interactions between its characters with a gentility long forgotten, except by the most devoted rural inhabitants.  Secondly, subtle changes in casting create a more humanizing tale of love and care between generations than one witnesses either in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie, with Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, or the 2001 live television broadcast, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Director Kristina Schramm’s direction seems determined to provide the audience with quiet emotional moments that run deep, like the soothing waters of Golden Pond itself.

Sadly, critically, what goes missing is the chemistry between its principle characters, Norman (Mark Shallow) and Ethel (Marie Goodkin) Thayer. On Golden Pond’s bedrock foundation is the life-long romance between these two contrary personalities. Norman is witty, morbid, irascible, and mischievous; Ethel is positive, energetic and outgoing–utterly stalwart in her love for Norman and embattled in her attempts to maintain his relationship between him and their daughter, Chelsea (Laura MacGregor). But, unfortunately, in Shallow and Goodkin’s hands, so much goes into expressing the differences between this rugged pair, the vital connections that keep them together almost vanish into airy nothingness.

That is a terrible misstep. For his part, Shallow shows adept grace in bringing out Norman’s most vulnerable moments. Whether in coming to terms with his progressively deteriorating memory in front of Ethel or possibly facing his last moments on earth, Shallow gives us a Norman who won’t make much ado about going into that good night. Nevertheless, he brings us to profound emotional depths with the tentativeness of Norman’s existence. Goodkin, as Ethel, could do more to bring out the nuances of living and loving a difficult creature like Norman. Her greater strength seems to be establishing Ethel’s strong emotional bonds with Chelsea or soothing the feelings of Charlie (Robert Dean), Golden Pond’s local mailman, who still carries a torch for her daughter.

OGPpress2Casting Laura MacGregor as a plump and successful Chelsea is a delightful touch—particularly when more famous productions of this play have typically chosen slender actresses for this role. Norman’s “little fat girl” is usually depicted as a woman redeemed by diets and/or exercise; but MacGregor’s Chelsea is as ample as she is—still angered by Norman’s frozen judgments of her, but capable of having love in her life all the same. MacGregor’s Chelsea is wry and self-defeating; sure of herself away from Norman, but still unsteady under his gaze. Chelsea’s new beau, Bill (Jeff Brown), is affable, direct, and credible in his ability to handle Norman’s mind games.

But perhaps the nicest touch of all is the choice of Charlie Bazzell for the role of Billy—Bill’s son by a former marriage. Other productions project Billy as a troubled kid, in need of Ethel and Norman’s redeeming care while Bill and Chelsea go off to Europe for the summer. But, thankfully, Bazzell’s Billy is just a kid being himself–without being any threat to anyone—someone with whom Norman really can have one (last?) Tom Sawyer summer. I don’t know if that makes this On Golden Pond more Norman Rockwell for most audiences—I only know that it feels much more like my own childhood growing up in rural Montana.

Much about Lincoln Square’s production is soft, sweet, and gently humanizing. If only the romance between Ethel and Norman were there, flickering with wit, beset by the scary challenges of aging—but enduring and irreproachable. The last essential scene between Ethel and Norman is genuinely effective and moving. It’s not inconceivable that this crucial element could develop and expand in the course of the run. That would not just be icing on the cake–that would be the cake that could hold everything other sweet and salty thing in it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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