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: American Theatre Company’s “Yeast Nation”

 A Mucking Good Time

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American Theatre Company presents:

Yeast Nation

by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann
directed by PJ Paparelli
runs through October 18th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Yeast Nation is an innovative musical production unlike anything I have ever seen before. Greg Kotis (a veteran of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists) and Mark Hollmann (a veteran of Chicago Theatre Building’s Musical Theatre Workshop), the same creators of the Tony-winning musical Urinetown, tell a provocative story about the creation of life based on an absurd premise of single celled yeasts living in a primordial soup. There are no  stories of life before these yeasts; these yeasts are the beginning of time.

yeast-nation-3These vocally gifted yeasts are living under the dictatorial rule of the Elder (Joseph Anthony Foronda), he being the yeast that produced all other yeasts. They are starving yet the Elder forbids them to rise to the top where plenty of nourishing food is available. The Elder believes that his oppression is for the good of all yeasts and life as a whole. He even kills a yeast (Sweet yeast’s father) for disobeying him and eating from the top of the liquid surroundings. The Elder’s son Second (Andrew Keltz), the second in command, sees no sense in his fathers orders. He ventures off to discover and take advantage of all the wonderful things available near the top, such as delicious fulfilling muck. He promises Sweet (the name of the sweet yeast) a new world, not knowing what lies ahead. Second’s engulfment of muck results in the birth of a fantastic pink creature (Stephanie Kim), sparking the beginning of the progress to a new multi-celled organism.

Do not be alarmed if none of this makes any sense – the creators were aware of their own craziness in the foundation of their story and the even more incredible plot. In the beginning I was getting a little nervous as I had no idea what was going on, and then the scary-eyed grey-haired yeast (Barbara Robertson) poked fun at how weird it is to believe in a story about yeasts. Throughout the play the creators slide in small little jokes recognizing the lack of believability and completely insane premise of a society of single-celled yeasts. This is theatre, not school. Have some fun with it.

Each scene is filled with graphic sexual innuendos hidden in Kotis and Hollmann’s brilliant writing. Though tempted to share with you some of these tastefully shocking lines, I would not want to ruin the experience of the live delivery. Considering the depth of this unordinary script and lyrics, I am looking forward to discovering the jokes that were intelligently hidden beyond my comprehension the first time seeing the performance.

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There is no distinct set on stage. The scenery is composed of purple lights hanging from the ceiling and rafters creating Disney-like prehistoric stars. The stage is cluttered with scaffolds and equipment displaying the result of a Broadway-style performance being compressed into the small storefront space of American Theatre Co. This design allows for the yeasts to utilize a variety of heights and abstract placements on the stage, providing the sense of a large production cramming itself into the small set.

The lighting and special effects add the change in atmosphere to each various style of song. The musical variety in this bizarre tale includes a little bit of everything. The style of each song had its own vibe from a tune sang at a church choir, downtown disco, a rock concert, Christian rock, Gospel, rock video and more. I am pretty sure they did a parody of Meatloaf’s music video for “I Would Do Anything for Love.”

Before I even had an idea of what was going on in the plot, I already felt I was watching the beginning of a spectacular new musical. The confusion is part of the fun. The costumes were a little hokey, but the quality of talent on stage combined with the unique incomparable writing by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann is a combination for success. Go see the birth of the next hit musical that you cannot believe someone could imagine to produce.

Rating: «««½ 

Playing at American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago, IL, Thursdays & Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays, through October 18, 2009.

 

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