When I told someone I was going to "Grease," he thought I meant the country.
I should have been so lucky.
Then again, Greece was the cradle of democracy - and democracy played a role in the new but sad revival of "Grease," the musical, which last night wandered into Broadway's headlights.
Danny and Sandy were cast via the TV reality show "Grease: You're the One That I Want." (It probably should have been called "You're the Two That I Want," but why quibble.)
So saying, the misguided selection of uncharismatic Max Crumm as Danny and unexciting Laura Osnes as Sandy was achieved by the votes of viewers like you. And while the TV show was no "American Idol," if all the participating voters were to be laid end to end, they'd add up to a remarkably long Broadway run.
Now, all the producers have to do is to get them into the theater. I suppose that's where director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall (a woman of some experience) comes in.
All told, I've seen worse - but then, I've been attending the theater for more than 65 years, so "worse" is a very well-thumbed comparative.
This is where the TV show hits the Broadway fan.
The musical itself - an early '70s pastiche of late '50s rock about the ups and downs of teenage love, just like "Romeo and Juliet," but on the whole less tragic - has never been a personal favorite.
The score (book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey) has been slightly amended but remains puny. The book contain a few decent lines (perhaps as many as four) while stringing together a pointlessly obvious story.
The new production looks cheap despite a distinguished design team in Derek McLane (scenery), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) and Kenneth Posner (lighting), so I presume the sweetly amateurish look was the one Marshall and her producers wanted. They sure got it.
The cast seems the most elderly group of teenagers around, and the look of one or two of them suggests they failed the auditions for the 1972 production but gallantly refused to give up.
The main trouble with the elected stars, Osnes and Crumm - she being a great deal better, especially in spandex, than he - seems that the kind of chemistry between them could well discourage hydrogen from getting together with oxygen to make water.
The rest of the cast is more effective, particularly Jenny Powers as Rizzo, Matthew Saldivar as Kenickie, Stephen R. Buntrock as Teen Angel (the one who gets to sing "Beauty School Dropout") and Jeb Brown as the lecherous aging deejay, Vince Fontaine.
Despite Marshall's energized efforts, this crass musical makes "Legally Blonde" seem like "West Side Story."
I hear the show has a $15 million advance. Mazel tov, kids! Go blow their voters' socks off and remove their toenails. They had it coming.
Changing the channel is not an option.
I am sorry to report that the limp new production of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s “Grease,” which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, is not governed by the rules of audience control that applied to “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” the reality TV show through which this revival cast its stars.
I only occasionally dipped my toes into those protracted television auditions, which were broadcast (to meager ratings) last winter on NBC. The spectacle of all those bouncy, sunny young things self-consciously singing off-key, suggesting a karaoke night in Fort Lauderdale during spring break, was a sobering reminder of why the remote control exists.
But in live theater, if you’re a reasonably polite person, you stick with the show you’ve paid for, at least for the first act. With “Grease” this means that if you last until intermission, you sit through more than an hour of a musical set in a high school that feels like a musical put on by a high school — and I don’t mean a high school of performing arts.
Let me hasten to add that no one in the young cast of this revival, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, is flat-out terrible, including Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, the 21-year-olds elected by television audiences to play Danny and Sandy, the romantic leads. Nobody noticeably strays from melodies, flubs dialogue or botches rudimentary dance moves. Ms. Marshall has obviously drilled her cast thoroughly.
But there’s the numbing sense of performers of undeveloped talent conscientiously doing what they have been told to do and failing to claim their parts as their own. Though set off by comic-strip, era-defining sets (Derek McLane) and costumes (Martin Pakledinaz), the cast members show little affinity for the 1950s style that is celebrated and satirized here. The effect is rather like one of those makeover shows in which everyday people are dressed and groomed to resemble red-carpet regulars and wind up looking like game but uneasy impostors.
The reincarnations of “Grease,” first staged on Broadway in 1972, can be read as a map of showbiz devolution. That original production had the amiable air of a gritty spoof, enacted by a lively, raunchy ensemble of youngsters just old enough to understand what they were spoofing. The vastly popular 1978 film, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, was a slicked-up, cleaned-up frame for its teenage idols, not all that different from the campus-cutup frolics that starred June Allyson and Van Johnson. (This Broadway revival is the first to feature four songs composed for the movie, including the title song and “You’re the One That I Want.”)
The long-running revival that opened in 1994, produced by Barry and Fran Weissler, was a mindless, trashy theme park of a show, which managed to prolong its life beyond all sane expectations with revolving-door replacement casts of celebrities in career limbo. The implicit message was that anyone who is famous could star in a big-time musical, an outlook that continues to inform the Weisslers’ blockbuster revivals of “Chicago” at home and abroad.
The message of this latest “Grease” is that anyone, famous or not, can star in a Broadway musical, a natural enough conclusion in the era of YouTube and “American Idol,” when the right to be a celebrity is perceived as constitutional. And I can see how Ms. Marshall might have talked herself into believing that this democratic approach could work for “Grease.”
After all, the musical began life as a modest, do-it-yourself cult hit in Chicago in 1971. And unlike many youth-oriented shows, it has continued to appeal to successive generations of teenagers, including the current demographic that has turned the Disney “High School Musical” franchise into a cash machine. “Summer Nights” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” are now karaoke staples among teenagers. (O.K., maybe not the coolest ones.) Why not a people’s “Grease” that would reflect its belonging to everyone?
But for this sensibility to work, a theatergoer has to be personally invested in its stars’ doing well. Those who religiously watched “You’re the One That I Want” may cheer Mr. Crumm and Ms. Osnes the way high school students might root for their chums in the class play. (“Did you know she could kick like that?” “He looks so funny with that pompadour.”)
Those who come to “Grease” without such sentimental attachments are sure to be baffled by the lack of wit, charisma or original presence on the stage. Given the choice between slick soullessness and rough-edged sincerity, I’ll take the latter any day. But most of the cast here seems uncomfortably wedged between those extremes. Everyone is reasonably proficient but devoid of the heightened personality that is essential to landing jokes and selling songs.
Ms. Osnes has a valedictorian’s poise, a sweet singing voice and eyes that instantly well up during emotional moments. But she approaches Sandy the good girl with the earnestness of a first-year acting student doing Juliet.
Mr. Crumm has the dopey, likably sly face of a nerdy class clown, which makes him a refreshing if improbable choice for the studly Danny Zuko. But he never projects the authority of a natural leader of the pack. (Every time Danny pulls up the collar of his leather jacket in a cooler-than-thou gesture, it feels as if Mr. Crumm is actively remembering this is something he needs to do.)
Among the rest of the cast (who were not, for the record, elected by television voters), only Kirsten Wyatt, as Frenchy, the beauty school dropout, shows any command of comic timing. The dance numbers, which quote Patricia Birch’s prototypes, are executed dutifully instead of joyously.
The objective of Ms. Marshall, who so memorably rejuvenated “The Pajama Game” a year ago, seems principally to get her cast through the show without any of its members embarrassing themselves. They don’t, although a truly embarrassing moment or two might at least give this “Grease” some of the raw life it lacks.
There are several fantasy metamorphosis numbers in “Grease,” when characters suddenly find themselves wearing glittery rock ’n’ roll clothes and surrounded by backup choruses. Such transformations are what this “Grease” is meant to be about: ordinary kids becoming superstars before your eyes.
But in none of these numbers does the level of performance rise in intensity, polish or even plain old fun. This revival is a reminder that even in the new democracy of fame, it takes more than a change of wardrobe to make a bona fide stage star.
Some elections have proven that America doesn't always make the most farsighted choices. That forlorn conclusion is amplified loud and clear in the dispiritingly bland Broadway revival of "Grease": Letting the people choose their own Danny and Sandy does little to validate the democratic election process.
The voting took place during the finale of NBC's lackluster talent competition series, "Grease: You're the One That I Want," which aired over 12 weeks earlier this year.
As a promotional gambit, the reality show appears to have been successful. While it was perceived as a ratings disappointment, an average of 7.5 million viewers per episode is a massive increase in the number of folks normally exposed to direct Broadway marketing. That factor, plus the enduring popularity of the 1978 bigscreen "Grease," have helped the Rialto revival play to near capacity through previews and build a sizeable $15 million advance.
But casting choices should be made by qualified professionals and based on broader considerations -- not heavily edited song-and-dance samples. The ability to build and inhabit a character was one important facet pretty much ignored in the TV trials, as was the vital component of chemistry between the two winners.
In the U.K., TV talent searches for the leads in West End revivals of "The Sound of Music" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" yielded hit productions and met with generally supportive critical response. The formula's American debut (which follows a tepidly received London "Grease" remount by a week) may well go on to financial success, but, in terms of energy and freshness, it's flat as a pancake.
Not that there's anything especially wrong with Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, the pair chosen to play cool-dude Danny Zuko and his innocent summer love Sandy Dumbrowski, respectively, in Kathleen Marshall's low-wattage New York production. They sing confidently, dance capably and have their own low-key, unaffected charms. But they're unprepossessingly innocuous, which is not a great quality in musical theater leads. What's more, they have less-than-zero sexual connection.
In a regional theater production -- which is what this one resembles -- Crumm and Osnes might be the toast of the town; the latter's vocals, especially, are lovely and she handles the high notes with admirable ease. Basically, they're two talented kids who would be fine on the support team but have no business carrying a Broadway show. They also have the kind of tiny bodies and small, telegenic features that don't communicate beyond row C of the orchestra.
The strength of choreographer-director Marshall's staging -- whether it's her revivals of "Wonderful Town" and "The Pajama Game" or her spirited dance numbers in "Kiss Me Kate" -- has been her knack for injecting buoyancy into potentially creaky material. She has consistently bucked the overmined trend toward condescending irony, refreshingly presenting period pieces at face value.
None of this factors into Marshall's "Grease," however, which smacks of a presold title being lazily recycled and owes more to the movie (from which it includes the popular additional songs) than to previous stage incarnations.
It also represents perhaps the final step in the sanitization of a once-irresistible property, now drained of every ounce of the raunch and blue-collar suburban Illinois grit that gave the show its edge. At this point, it's barely distinguishable from Disney's squeaky-clean contempo progeny, "High School Musical."
Edge also is largely absent from the supporting cast. Comic figures like stern schoolmistress Miss Lynch (Susan Blommaert), suave radio host Vince Fontaine (Jeb Brown), guiding spirit Teen Angel (Stephen R. Buntrock) and class bore Patty Simcox (Allison Fischer) are given routine treatment that undersells the laughs. Everyone does what's required, but the director hasn't exactly driven them to dig deep for inspiration.
While they're all a little long in the tooth for the parts they're playing, the matching cliques of awkwardly testosterone-fueled T-Birds and sassy Pink Ladies generally register more amusingly, particularly on the distaff side. Jenny Powers' Rizzo seems more hard and bitter than tough and trashy but she plays it with the requisite jaded attitude and delivers the show's best song, the rueful yet unapologetic "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," with conviction. Man-crazed blonde Marty (Robyn Hurder) and ditzy Frenchy (Kirsten Wyatt) also hit the right comic notes.
Best of the bunch, however, is Matthew Saldivar's Kenickie, balancing ice-cool self-assurance with disarming touches of oafishness and insecurity, not to mention sharp comic timing. Without wanting to beat up on miscast Crumm, it's easy to imagine Saldivar (lately of "The Wedding Singer") bringing more natural ownership and some much needed dangerous sexual allure to Danny.
On the tech side, Martin Pakledinaz's costumes and Kenneth Posner's lighting do the job without particular distinction while Derek McLane's cartoonish sets could use more stylistic unity. Orchestrations are thin and Marshall's uninventive choreography on the cramped stage seems too content to take its cue from "Born to Hand-Jive," the one number in which any significant electricity is sparked.
The most dismal thing about this "Grease" is that, aside from the two discoveries plucked from a mediocre TV talent pool and thrust into this production, no one appears to be trying very hard. Like the drag-queeny wig slapped on Sandy when she finally conforms to the cool-kid ethos by unleashing the bad-girl within to win Danny, it all seems somewhat counterfeit.