By Philip Dorian
Let’s separate the play from the production. “Grease” isn’t much of a show, but once you get past the mindless plot, the shallow characters and the disturbing moral (there’s no virtue in virtue), the Phoenix production is pretty good.
Set in the 1950s at fictional Rydell High School, “Grease” premiered in Vietnam-weary 1972, when nostalgia for the ‘50s was at its height. It ran for eight years! However, after two less-successful Broadway revivals and innumerable community and high school productions, the show is now well past its sell-by date.
That said, “Grease” is a good “Girls Night Out” – at least for the Girls in the cast. The females dominate the play as written, and Phoenix’s Rydell girls obviously enjoy flouncing about in fluffy skirts, singing the familiar score and dancing to Rachel Wasser’s free-style choreography.
The guys are a necessary component, of course (Rizzo’s suspected pregnancy requires at least one), but the show itself relegates them to support status, a function the Phoenix fellows fill very well.
Back at school after a summer romance, Danny Zuko (Philip Mazzara) turns his back on Sandy Dumbrowski (Maggie Bera), who doesn’t fit in with his greaser image (until she abandons prim-and-proper for slutty). Sub-plots involve other pair-ups, jealous misunderstandings and general mockery of individualism.
The songs are generic rock ‘n’ roll, some of which attained mainstream popularity. “We Go Together” segues into the appealing “Summer Nights,” nicely sung by Mazzara and Bera. “Freddy, My Love” is sung sweetly by Marty (Kate Pentek) and the Pink Ladies pajama-party clique. Faux tough-guy Kenickie (Ian Laudano) makes the most of “Greased Lightnin’” with the Burger Palace Boys.
As outspoken Betty Rizzo, Jennifer Townsend sends-up prudery with “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” and makes Rizzo’s sad-but-true point with “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Ms. Bera stops the show with “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” one of four songs added from the 1978 film adaptation.
Other worthy contributors include Chelsea DeMaio as wistful beauty school dropout Frenchy, Kyle Hayes as a likable nerd and real-good dancer Torie-Marie Gigante as Cha-Cha DiGregorio. Alyssa Cichy is Jan, who moons over Roger (Mark Regan, Jr.), who moons everyone else.
Two of the characters are adults – a befuddled teacher and an unctuous radio DJ – played competently by Rosemary Mazzara and JD Wilson. Both actors are schoolteachers, which exacerbates the ick factor of the DJ’s intense lip-lock with teen-girl Marty.
The seven-piece band, under musical director Chris Sabol, is smaller than Phoenix’s usual, but no less effective. Bethanie Wampol’s sketchy sets and Donna Gigante Silogy’s costumes, some rented, suggest location, time and place.
To Joseph Stefanelli’s credit, his direction rises above the material, and if the cast’s real-life schoolmates show up, a possibility that might have occurred to the Phoenix play-selection committee, he and Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey will have done their job. (Never heard of Jacobs and Casey? They wrote the music, lyrics and book of “Grease.”)
“Grease” continues this weekend at the Count Basie Theatre, 99 Monmouth St., Red Bank, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Information and tickets ($22-$26; senior discounts): 732-747-0014 or at www.phoenixredbank.com.