Whenever I ask people what play they would like to see put on by local theaters, Grease is always one of the first answers I get. It’s little surprise then that Smithfield Little Theatre has been selling out show after show, leading them to actually add an extra performance to try and accommodate all who want to see it.
Thankfully your humble reviewer did manage to get a seat to directors’ Kathy Strozak and Judy Winslow’s local runaway hit.
First performed in 1971, Grease strips away the Leave it to Beaver veneer of the 1950s to reveal what life was truly like. The Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies are cliques, but as history class, West Side Story, and Pleasantville have taught us, they weren’t outside the norm, even though the white picket fence and twin beds were the (unrealistic) ideals put forth at the time. Rizzo’s “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” shows the feelings of failure those ideals ended up causing. Despite what was on TV, teenagers were not all like Patty Simcox. In fact, many elements from the musical still had to be toned down for the movie in order to make it past the censors in 1978.
But let’s talk about this production. First up, it appeared to me that there was bit of vocal miscasting. In at least three songs the actors seemed to be struggling with the range of their particular character, despite each actor clearly having a lovely voice. I would love to hear these performers sing things more suited to their voice types and will be watching for them in the future. I don’t mean to say these numbers were bad, but they weren’t what they could have been, and that is a little disappointing for the audience and no doubt the actors as well.
The vocal casting was dead on with Roger & Jan (C.J. Romanelli and Rachel Popp). The duo is not just comfortable with their voice parts in “Mooning”, but also with each other and that chemistry reads beautifully. I’m actually torn between “Mooning” and “Alone at the Drive-In Movie” as my favorite number. While the suggestive language gets lost in “Greased Lightning,” it is more discernible in “Drive In.” “Drive-In” is slower and there’s no dancing in the way, but more than that, Danny (Nathan Jacques) plays with the audience in this number (while hitting notes somewhere in the Ozone Layer) and that sort of extra attention will always win your audience over.
Cassidy Rabchenuk’s portrayal of Frenchy is not at all what the audience is expecting, and yet it is exactly as it should be. Rabchenuk adds her own bit of spunk to the traditional neuroticism of Frenchy. It is difficult to describe just what the difference is, but it’s there and it works! Patty Simcox (Sarah Jacques) and Eugene Florczyk (Jesse Melms) bring some more light-hearted slapstick to the scene. More than once I caught their hijinks out of the corner of my eye. Both actors excel at the delicate art of adding to the background of a scene without stealing it.
Despite its realistic portrayals of 50s teen culture, Grease was still shocking for its day, and while standards have become more lax, there should still be an edgy feel. That feeling wasn’t there for much of this production. For example the iconic “Greased Lightning” number, if one listens to the lyrics, is pretty raunchy. But if the action on stage doesn’t correspond, it’s easy to miss. The choreography for this number (and several others) had the actors lining up to dance rather than interacting with one another. The fact that the actors looked less than confident in their footwork didn’t help. I was also puzzled why choreographers Meredith Parks and Leslie Scarpelli chose to have the characters dance in groups for “Born to Hand Jive” when we’ve just been told it is a dance competition where couples are to be eliminated. But all is not lost, as the focus switches to Danny Zuko and Cha-Cha Digregoria (Nathan Jacques and Coral Mapp, respectively) for their contest-winning dance solo. This bit of acrobatics was most impressive.
Trey Gwaltney and James Clarke lead the orchestra beautifully. No sour notes, beautifully balanced with the vocals and with each other. Tom Davidson on saxophone is a particular favorite of mine. Now is also the time to mention that the balance of all the sound elements into the house is wonderful, and that’s no easy feat when using body microphones with sweaty dancing actors, so kudos to sound designer Don Curnutte and sound tech Jason Price. The stage crew is fantastic, and all pieces of Robert Cox’s simplistic and elegant set design are moved swiftly and cleanly. Lighting designer Dan Steiger gives his light techs (Kaylee Dubois and Garrison Gray) quite a job given the number of spots used, and they keep up throughout the performance. Credit is also due to Mr. Steiger for his on stage drive-in theater. Some of the costumes appear a bit baggy, particularly Patty Simcox’s sweater, but Leslie Neel’s design for the “Beauty School Dropout” outfits was hilarious and perfect.
While I feel I owe it to the reader (and the actors and production teams) to point out what I feel to be shortcomings, I often worry my reviews come off more critical than I intend them to be. I drove all the way to Smithfield from Norfolk on a Friday evening to see this show, knowing I had an early start to a long day the following morning. I would absolutely go see this again under the same circumstances. Grease is just fun, and if you are able to lay your hands on one of the very limited remaining tickets I recommend doing so.
I would tell you the dates and curtain times for Grease at Smithfield Little Theatre, but its final weekend is COMPLETELY SOLD OUT! But if you’re feelin’ lucky, you can call the box office at (757) 357-7338 to find out if any tickets have been released. If you’re lucky enough to see the show, tell us what you thought of the show in the comments!