Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse celebrates its 61st season of crowd-pleasing musicals, opening with a golden oldie, “Grease,” and ending with a tantalizing new work, “Loch Ness.” There’s a fresh philosophy, too: producing artistic director Brett Smock announces a “new identity” for the theatre, a rebranding that focuses on “entertainment, community, social awareness and diversity.”
But aside from the usual color-blind casting, it’s hard to see what this production of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s “Grease” brings to a modern dialogue—after all, the musical’s final message is that if a girl wants to get her guy and be socially cool, she has to transform herself and her values utterly to fit in. Since its raunchy, rebellious Chicago birth in 1971, “Grease” has itself morphed so much that it’s hard to recognize it as an aesthetic whole, but the 1978 film version with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John remains the most resonant.
Set in the late ’50s, “Grease” features the antics at Rydell High, especially the working class kids whose cliques (T-Birds for the guys, Pink Ladies for the girls) give them some standing and security. When newcomer Sandy Dumbrowski arrives, her good-girl attire and demeanor earn her the mocking epithet “Sandra Dee.” At Rydell, she’s surprised to find her heartthrob Danny Zuko as leader of the greaser pack (he’d romanced her that summer, when they’d met elsewhere, apart from their confining communities). Somehow, Sandy survives the new crowd’s teasing and hazing rituals of smoking, drinking, and ear piercing. But making sense of Danny’s inconsistent shifts between his social role and inner self is more than she can take. The conclusion: her conversion and collective acceptance.
This production has a talented, energetic cast, led by director Igor Goldin, with Corinne Aquilina’s orchestra supporting the singing effectively (its location above the stage helps the acoustics, while sound design is by the aptly named Kevin Heard). Phil Colgan’s choreography is serviceable but modest and somewhat repetitive. Nate Bertone keeps the setting simple (love those yellow lockers and the surprising convertible) and Jose Santiago’s lighting neatly sculpts the space. But the visual pièce de résistance is Tiffany Howard’s costumes –– the guys’ obligatory black leather jackets and girls’ endlessly varied dresses. (The vintage pattern, fabrics, and colors are irresistible, not to mention those baby doll nightgowns.)
As Danny, Michael Notardonato (a young Travolta look-alike if you squint) brings a genuine personality and charm to the role, moving past type. Heather Makalani’s straight-laced Sandy is highly appealing, her late-stage tart less so. Of the crew, standouts include Noah S. Bridgestock’s Kenickie; Travis Przybylski’s Roger, aka Rump, king of the moonies; Nick Martinez’s handsomely voiced Doody, the wannabe rocker; and Elizabeth Adabale’s Jan, whose authenticity quietly captivates. As tough-masking-tender Rizzo, Mia Gerachis seems more unhappy and brooding than sarcastically distanced.
And finally, delightfully, there’s Lindsey Alley,, having a great goofy time as the teacher Miss Lynch, mistress of the revels as well as the classroom: one moment tittering about her double entendres over the P.A. system, the next letting loose at the sock hop.
With so much good spirit, how could I remain detached? Maybe “Grease” is like a Twinkie, with its notoriously long shelf life: dripping with nostalgia, a bit of fluff ultimately just imitating the real thing. (The songs evoke early rock ’n’ roll, but only remind you how great the originals were.)
It’s also ideologically confusing. We think of these kids as comical stereotypes; in fact, their personalities, talk, and concerns echo my own high school experience in that era exactly. Only the picture is one-sided: the few straight dweebs in the musical were actually a significant clique, the collegiates. (And by the way, both groups danced well.) One group went to college, the other sometimes to jail—with a few noticeable crossovers. (At this production’s end, Sandy dressing Danny in a letterman’s sweater makes no sense, as he’s already made his allegiances clear.)
But we love romanticizing the disadvantaged greasers; even Rizzo’s apprehensions about getting pregnant are trivialized in this distorted paean to a long-ago youth culture. And in 2019, it’s hard watching Frenchy drop out of high school and then even beauty school without thinking “the educational system failed her.” But any whiff of reality is interrupted by the Ziegfield Follies-esque spectacle that hails her, complete with Alfonso Annotto’s outrageous hair-curler wigs and a black drag queen leading the parade.
Don’t ask why. More is more, and the guiding principle seems to be anything goes—aesthetically and thematically. Iconic or ironic? Who can tell?
“Grease,” book, music, and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. With Michael Notardonato, Heather Makalani, and ensemble. Directed by Igor Goldin. At the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Auburn, through June 26. Tickets at (315) 255-1785 or email@example.com.
Barbara Adams, a regional theatre and arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.