According to a recent CNN article, Americans have an addiction to the word "addiction," but I'm about to use it now: I think I've developed a theater addiction. I may very well need to start seeking out a theater rehab program in addition to my local Theatergoers Anonymous chapter, because tonight, I found myself there again. This time, it was to see the original version of Grease, which is running at the American Theater Company.
I say the "original version" because Grease was originally produced in Chicago in 1971, but the show was significantly tamed down when it later moved to Broadway. The original played on Chicago's ethnic and geographic stereotypes, and employed much grittier levels of sex and violence. The local character of the show, and much of its more controversial content was expunged to make the production more palatable to a mainstream audience, and the show's original incarnation was largely forgotten. The only reason I knew it existed was because of the vast quantities of Wikipedia articles I consume on a regular basis.
And, the only reason I knew about this new production of the original Grease was because I managed to get on the American Theater Company's mailing list when I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch there two years ago, and they've been relentlessly mailing me and trying to get me to become a season subscriber ever since. Frankly, I found their constant appeals to be rather irritating, but for once I was actually intrigued when I spotted Grease on the roster for their current season, and I promptly added it to my 2011 to-d0 list.
Being as how I've been a bit of a bad friend lately, neglecting my girlfriends to spend time with Justin, I decided it was time to atone for matters and treat Lisa to a special girls' night. I thought Grease, even in a different form, would be a perfect fit for us, because one of my earliest memories of her (most of middle-school is an emotionally-traumatizing blur to me now) involves her performance in the school show choir's revue of the musical. Lucky for me, she was amenable to the idea of a night out on the town, so I ordered some tickets and we were on our way.
True to its billing, the show was much raunchier, though only slightly more violent than its better-known version. A few of the songs made it through mostly intact from the original, including "Greased Lightning," "Freddy My Love," "Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee," "We Go Together," "Born to Hand Jive," "Beauty School Dropout," and "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." However, many of the songs underwent lyrical changes to clean them up, such as the omission of Rizzo from "Greased Lightning," in which she sings to Kenickie, "You really are a clown, if you think I'm going down in Greased Lightning." Among the songs stricken altogether is the innuendo-laden "Kiss It," a song later replaced by "You're The One That I Want," in which a post-makeover Sandy demands that Danny "kiss it, where I'm tender," in order to make amends for her broken heart. The original Grease was definitely a different show, albeit with recognizable characters and a similar story arc.
While it was an interesting intellectual exercise to see how the show was changed for mainstream audiences, I wouldn't go so far as to call it an stellar evening of theater. It suffered from the inverse problem of White Noise, which had a stellar cast but little memorable songs or palatable content; the original Grease had good jokes and pleasing music, but the cast featured some of the worst singing I've heard in professional theater. It was perhaps fitting that the actors were portraying high school students, because I couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching a high-school caliber performance of Grease in terms of vocal talent, only I had paid $45 per ticket for the privilege. The acting was much better than one might see out of ones drama department peers in the 11th grade, but the singing was right on par.
The poor vocals aside, the production was well-staged, and made good use of the strangely-shaped theater space. The stage at the American Theater Company is somewhat of a thrust stage, though it is a right triangle rather than semicircular. The audience is seated along the two shorter sides of the triangle, which creates some odd viewing angles, but I felt that the director did a good job of positioning the actors so that they played to the audience, no matter where they were seated.
I also enjoyed the set design, which featured antique cars and vintage signs to capture the era of the 1950s. My only complaint was that the production seemed to employ special effects for their own sake, rather than enhancing the storyline. In one scene, Patty Simcox inexplicably goes to the bathroom mid-song, seeming only so that they can show off the fact that the sink in bathroom set has working plumbing. At the end of the first act, it rains during an outdoor scene, leaving the stagehands to mop up the mess during intermission with towels, but adding little to the show other than impressing the audience that they were able to make it rain indoors. In my mind, they could have spent less on special effects, and more on finding better singers to fill the available roles. People go to musicals for the music first, production values second.
I still think the original Grease is worth seeing if you're a theater buff, or a lifelong Chicagoan who would appreciate the references made in the show. Indeed, it seemed like the audience was brimming over with people who were old enough to remember what Chicago was like in the 1950s (the woman sitting behind us, for instance, cattily commented during intermission that nobody she knew would have been caught dead with their hair so relatively un-teased in her day). If you can look beyond the shoddy singing, it's an interesting and enjoyable show.