The touring production of Grease stopped into Kansas City’s Music Hall for the February production of Broadway across Americas season. For those curious, the thirteenth longest running musical in history did come before the 1978 film which many are, I am willing to guess, much more familiar with. I can’t say I am as I’ve never seen the film. Sure I’ve heard “Summer Nights” and a couple of melodies from the film/show over the years but short of that I was about as blank a slate as one could be to the pop culture force known as Grease.
Perhaps that is a blessing in disguise or the exact opposite. Reading about the production on Wikipedia it seems as if time has had its ravages on Grease. What stared out as a raunchy, vulgar and raw portrayal of teenage life in the late fifties exploring the “greaser” culture has been softened into the form most know from the film, or after my experience something that self-proclaimed Gleeks (that’s die-hard fans of the FOX show Glee for those out of the loop) eat up. Let’s hope that time doesn’t do the same to Spring Awakening.
Thus its pretty safe material for families and those with delicate sensibilities. This is also what leads to what felt to me like a very disjointed show. The story is threadbare and seemingly serves as not much more than to prop up the musical numbers. Each scene and musical number ends up feeling like “this week (or day) in high school social life”. The musical numbers shine when the touring company takes to the stage for big song and dance numbers. When it comes time for solo performances the show suffers. For starters the sound mix was pretty awful when I caught the show on opening night. The ladies were pretty audible while the men’s solos were drowned out and barely audible over the band. I can’t say if the mix is solely to blame or if it was the various leads just not bringing it on opening night in a new town. The stage was easily stolen by Lauren Elaine Taylor as Rizzo. She was the standout every time she took the stage and commanded your attention.
After the fancy and what appeared to be expensive production of Shrek The Musical last month this feels like a high school production with very low key sets. Granted its not exactly fair to expect giant puppet dragons in something like Grease but even the car for “Greased Lightning” failed to really impress me. The costumes were fine, and as my companion from the evening said, a died in the wool fan of the 1978 film, “it looked lifted directly from the film”. Having not seen it I can’t say for certain but the costumes worked. It also made me realize that the “rock look” of a black T-shirt and jeans and cool leather jacket is as alive now as its ever been.
Ultimately Grease ended up feeling like a show that was for fans of the material, and they were out in force. Quite a few audience members were mouthing the lyrics to songs and the closest one could get to “seat dancing” was going on multiple times throughout the show. With the sound issues I wonder if it was the show’s subliminal way of encouraging a bit of audience participation theatre, which thankfully the crowd abstained from. Coming in as a blank slate I left neither persuaded nor discouraged about Grease. As for this production it certainly wasn’t its best on this evening. Though with the long life that Grease has enjoyed and I have a feeling will continue to enjoy, fans shouldn’t worry as I have a feeling that Grease will continue to be the word for many generations to come. It just wasn’t on this evening.
I give Grease at the Music Hall 2.5 “Hand Jives” out of 5
By John Coovert