In 1978, film producer Alan Carr took “Grease,” a gritty, vulgar musical about a group of streetwise teenagers in the late 1950s, and sanitized it into a shiny, bouncy, PG-rated big-screen vehicle for megastars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
It was a cultural phenomenon and remains the highest-grossing movie musical of all time, and its success led to just about every high school on the planet putting on their own production of “Grease” at one point or another.
The film version was so popular, in fact, that it’s rendered that very first stage incarnation obsolete. Most modern stagings of “Grease” take as many cues from the movie as they do the original book by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey.
For instance, the T-Birds, that gang of leather jacket-sporting bad boys headed by Danny Zuko, were known as the Burger Palace Boys when the play premiered in 1971. And those classic songs “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want” were written for the movie.
The Civic’s take on “Grease,” directed by Yvonne A.K. Johnson, uses all the songs from Jacobs and Casey’s original but also throws in the Top 40 hits from the movie. This is a little troublesome: While it’s always nice to hear the tunes made famous by Travolta and Newton-John – as well as the title song, written by Barry Gibb – it feels a little redundant when Danny, stranded at the drive-in, sings both “Alone at a Drive-In Movie” (from the stage show) and “Sandy” (from the movie) back-to-back.
What does remain constant in every production of “Grease,” however, is the story. It’s the start of a new term at Rydell High, and summertime sweethearts Danny (Joshua Spencer) and Sandy (Morgan Keene) discover that they’re now enrolled in the same school.
Sandy is, of course, the goody-two-shoes transfer student, and Danny is the hopeless romantic trying to remain cool in the company of his friends. On the periphery, there’s Rizzo (Brittany Cozza), the tough-talking leader of the Pink Ladies, and her tumultuous affair with Danny’s pal Kenickie (Jesen Korver), who dreams of one day owning a car that’s automatic, systematic and, yes, hydromatic.
But if you’ve only seen the cinematic “Grease,” which is almost exclusively a showcase for its top-billed stars, you’ll be surprised to learn that the stage version has some great material and songs for its minor characters. I especially like the coupling of the mouthy, food-obsessed Jan (Kallie Tilla) and Roger (Eric McGaughey), whose favorite pastime is dropping trou.
“Grease” is always going to be a good, charming musical, and it inspires nostalgia for both the 1950s and the 1970s. The songs are timeless and have a likable doo-wop flavor to them, and it’s quick and funny with a little bit of an edge to it. If you get the right cast involved, it’ll be smooth sailing.
It’s a reliably entertaining show, which might be why it’s still performed at a relentless frequency. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times on the stage; double that for the ’78 movie version.
I could probably go the rest of my life without seeing “Grease” again and feel just fine about it. There are only so many times you can hear the same song before you start to hunger for something different.
At the same time, that kind of familiarity can enhance the enjoyment of an old chestnut like “Grease,” and the Civic’s production, although nothing new or revelatory, is at least a lot of lighthearted fun. It’s sort of like spinning a greatest hits album by a legendary musician and finding comfort in the fact that you already know every word by heart.