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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Watch: cool video of Billy Elliot opening night

New video just posted by Broadway in Chicago – as you can tell, opening night of Billy Elliot was a lot of fun and a big success (see our review here★★★½).  Take a look-see!

[Check out more videos HERE]

 
       

REVIEW: Billy Elliot (Broadway in Chicago)

‘Billy Elliot’ shines

 

Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and Cast

 
Broadway in Chicago presents
 
Billy Elliot: The Musical
 
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John
Directed by Stephen Daldry
At the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre
Open run (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

After four Laurence Olivier Awards, ten Tony Awards and ten Drama Desk Awards, you don’t need me to tell you that Billy Elliot: The Musical is worth seeing. Time Magazine also named it the "Best musical of the decade," an assessment I Tommy Batchelor as Billydon’t agree with —  my vote goes to Urinetown — but I will say Billy Elliot has everything a good musical ought to have: Fine music, outstanding choreography and a heartwarming, if clichéd, story full of triumphs and pathos.

Having opened in London in 2005 and on Broadway in 2008, the acclaimed musical has finally come to Chicago, where a stellar cast does it full justice.

Based on Lee Hall’s screenplay for the 2000 film, the plot is one we’ve seen many times before — a talented youth, dancing to his own drummer, beats the odds and makes doubters accept him on his own terms.

In this case, it’s 11-year-old Billy Elliot, son of a British miner, amid the devastating 1984 Coal War in which labor lost its fight against Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, destroying the miners’ union and all but ending coal mining in the U.K. Billy’s mother is dead; his grandmother is senile; his dad and older brother, Tony, are on strike, along with most of the men in their town; money is short and tempers are flaring. Sent to boxing class, Billy accidentally stumbles into a girls’ ballet lesson and discovers a love and talent for dancing — outraging the men in his life.

It’s a rollercoaster of a story, full of contrasts, at turns funny and sad, raucous and refined, exultant and despondent. Politics, class consciousness, the role of the arts vs. sports, sexual identity all come together, sometimes clashingly. If the bitter defeat of the strike seems an odd match for the bright jubilation of Billy’s triumph, well … it’s a musical.

Peter Darling’s dazzling choreography makes the most of the juxtapositions, as in the brilliantly effective sequences of warring police and angry strikers interspersed with little girls in tutus.

Giuseppe Bausilio and Samuel Pergande J.P. Viernes as Billy
Tommy Batchelor and Ballet Girls Miners Association

Performed by a first-rate orchestra, led by Colin Welford, Elton John’s score, with lyrics by Hall, also brings us some startling contrasts. It runs the gamut from cheerful music-hall ditties to rousing anthems to sad ballads, from joyous to silly to angry, sometimes even in the same song. In an excellent example, one of the few solos, "We’d Go Dancing," Billy’s grandmother — a splendid performance by Cynthia Darlow — recalls her unhappy married life.

On the silly side, we get "Expressing Yourself," a strange sequence in which Billy and his transvestite friend, Michael (played alternately by Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush), don women’s clothes and then dance with giant headless dresses.

Then there’s the pure joy of "Electricity," Billy’s paean to dancing.

A rotating cast of four boys plays Billy. On opening night, 13-year-old Cesar Corrales showed dazzling talent as a dancer and actor. A breathtaking pas de deux with his older self (onetime Joffrey dancer Samuel Pergande) deservedly drew a standing ovation on opening night.

We also see excellent moves from Emily Skinner as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s pushy ballet teacher, and Blake Hammond as Mr. Braithwaite, her grotty accompanist.

No one in this ensemble puts a foot wrong.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

This musical contains adult language some parents may consider unsuitable for children.

Billy's Under Theatre Lights

 


 

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Billy Elliot announces entire Chicago cast, including 4th Billy

“Billy Elliot” announced Chicago cast

billeyelliott

Including J.P. Viernes as Chicago’s 4th Billy

 

Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Working Title Films and Old Vic Productions in association with Weinstein Live Entertainment, has announced, with Broadway In Chicago, casting for the Chicago production of Billy Elliot the Musical, previews beginning March 18th at the Oriental Theatre; opening night being Sunday, April 11th. The cast includes John Peter (J.P.) Viernes who joins the previously announced actors Tommy Batchelor, Giuseppe Bausilio and Cesar Corrales in the role of ‘Billy’.

Below: 3 of the 4 Billy’s

Cloud Gate

Starring in Billy Elliot are Armand Schultz (Dad); Cynthia Darlow (Grandma); Patrick Mulvey (Tony); Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush (Michael); Chicagoan Samuel Pergande (Billy’s Older Self); Jim Ortlieb (George); Chicagoan Susie McMonagle (Mum); Chicagoan Blake Hammond (Mr. Braithwaite); and Maria Connelly (Debbie).

Also featured are Matt Allen; Jason Babinsky; Chicagoan Elijah Barker; Madison Barnes; Cindy Benson; Sara Brians; Chicagoan Tony Clarno; Abby Church; Christine DeFillipo; Alexandra Dell’Edera; Faith Fetscher; Susan Haefner; Ryan Kasprzak; Chicagoan Kayla King; Kent Lewis; Will Mann; Kate Marilley; Spencer Milford; Brittany Nicholas; Chicagoan Mark Page; Mitch Poulos; Emily Richardson; Annelise Ritacca; Michaeljon Slinger; Jaclyn Taylor Ruggiero; Jamie Torcellini; Nicholas Torres; Brionna Trilling; and Kayla Vanderbilt. Additional casting will be announced at a later date.


About “Billy Elliot”

Stage DoorBilly Elliot is the funny, heartwarming tale of a young boy with a dream, and a celebration of his triumph against the odds. Set against the historic British miners’ strike of the 1980s, the story follows Billy’s journey as a boy in a small mining town who, after stumbling across a ballet class while on his way to a boxing lesson, realizes that his future lay not in the boxing ring but on stage as a dancer.

Featuring music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall, choreographed by Peter Darling and directed by Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on November 13, 2008 and was the winner of ten 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

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