In 1971, when I was still laboring in the vineyards of fashion, I was astonished to learn that we were on the verge of a '50's revival. It seemed inconceivable that anyone could be nostalgic about an era noted for its sartorial blandness.
Nostalgia for the '50's reached Broadway a year later with "Grease," an innocuous musical that, in its first incarnation, managed to become Broadway's longest running show, a title it held for four years until overtaken in 1983 by "A Chorus Line." "Grease" was apparently a favorite with teenagers who wanted to see the world of their mommies' adolescence.
The current revival stars with a pre-show warmup in which Brian Bradley, as a slimy deejay in a white tiger-skin jacket puts us in the mood of a '50's sweet sixteen party, just the right aura for this show.
The original production was unpretentious, which was true to the low-key period. The revival, billed as The Tommy Tune Production, directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, puts everything in overdrive.
The funniest number, for example, "Beauty School Dropout," which sold itself 20 years ago, has now been gussied up with a Little Richard clone who bears 4-foot high sculpted hairdo ("Hair by Dairy Queen," he quips). He is soon joined by a male chorus sporting similar "dos". It's a cute sight gag tiresomely overdrawn.
Such grandiose conceptualization makes this, I suppose, a deconstructionist "Grease." Ah, well, the material itself hardly warrants getting on one's high horse. "Grease" was always intended to divert children, and in the age of MTV, you probably have to push harder.
Calhoun has molded his large cast into an energetic, rousing ensemble. Rosie O'Donnell has the proper toughness as Betty Rizzo, the doyenne of the Pink Ladies, the, so to speak, ladies auxiliary of the Burger Palace Boys.
Ricky Paull Goldin struck me as a little too jejune and arch in the pivotal role of Danny Zuko, but he dances well, especially in a Latin number with Sandra Parpuro. Susan Wood is splendid as a greaser novitiate, and Marcia Lewis has a delicious drunk scene.
John Arnone and Willa Kim have given "Grease" a dizzily Day-Glo allure.
It is amusing to think that the kids depicted in "Grease" were the ones our parents warned us against. With the defining of deviancy downward over the last few decades, they now seem cultural trailblazers. The '50s was arguably the last decade in which our pop culture was adult and sophisticated. I wonder when the '50s will be rediscovered.
As raucous, rowdy and tirelessly talentlessly amateur as ever Grease is back and the Eugene O'Neill Theater has caught it.
When Grease was new - if Grease was ever new - back in 1972 I recall writing something to the effect that while 1959 was a good vintage year for burgundy it seemed a little recent for nostalgia.
Well by now most of the burgundy will be either drunk or in some sad cases almost thinned to vinegar, but I suppose its time for nostalgia may have come and a few aged pre-baby boomers in their 50's might exult in this mindless celebration of Howdy-Doody High School mythology.
Grease which began life as a five-hour amateur show presented in a Chicago trolley barn, was originally created by Jim Jacobs and the late Warren Casey - whose careers took off so completely that they were virtually, if understandably, never heard of again.
Still, the shenanigans of Rydell High hit a popular nerve - and the show moved from Chicago to off-Broadway to Broadway where it stayed and stayed and stayed.
It became one of the legendary runs (3388 performances) of Broadway history and, considering most of its original reviews, a wonderful living riposte to that frequently heard complaint that theater critics kill shows!
Then there was the movie version - with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John - and now this revamped, rehyped, slightly remodeled and partly reconditioned Broadway resuscitation.
Perhaps the undeniable staying power of Grease can be attributed to the manner in which it isolated the lasting social phenomena of the otherwise faceless 50's.
These were the invention of American suburbia that no-man's-land between town and country and the musical watershed of the mid-50's rock-n-roll, after which pop music and everything that sociologically went with it was never the same.
This time around for Grease, some changes have been made. For example, Teen Angel, who used to come on as Fabian, now comes off as Little Richard with a funnier hairstyle and stronger attitude.
Also, although the revival avoids the new songs inserted into the movie, I have a feeling that some of the rock realities - such as cover versions of the Skyliners "Since I Don't Have You" and even a brief swish of Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash" - are fresh interpolations to bolster up the pastiche score.
The new production (touchingly described as "Live on Stage") has a dusty road-company look to it and appears low-tech in everything except amplification. Supervised by Tommy Tune and directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, the staging lacks for nothing in energy.
The cast busts a gut in its efforts to entertain and deafen. The nominal star is Rosie O'Donnell, who looks like a cadet version of Roseanne Arnold in the secondary role of tough-baby Rizzo.
But the most notable performance (a comparative achievement) is that of Ricky Paull Goldin who plays the lead Danny Zuko as a mix between Travolta and Henry Winkler, which is on target.
I didn't much like this revival of Grease, but I didn't much like it the first time around either. So its way to the bank (laughing) should be clear.
Hey, remember nostalgia? Remember that funny, innocent way people used to look at the past?
The extraordinary accomplishment of the Tommy Tune production of "Grease!," a revival of the long-running 1972 musical about the 1950's, is to make you perversely sentimental about lost sentimentality, to pine not for a simpler time but for simpler ways of evoking it.
If you squint, you can discern the bones of the original, a corny, good-natured paean to adolescent randiness that was translated into a prodigiously successful 1978 movie. And, in the version that opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's book, music and lyrics are pretty much intact.
But somehow the musical's rudimentary story line, characterizations and affectionate spoof songs are nearly lost amid the clumsy spectacle and high-decibel orchestrations of this road show, which has been directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun under Mr. Tune's supervision.
Set amid the Day-Glo panels of John Arnone's sight-gag sets, with surrealist cartoon costumes by Willa Kim and music that mixes Jacobs and Casey's parodistic songs with authentic 1950's standards, this is (gulp!) a post-modernist "Grease!" And it appears to be expressly aimed at a young audience that teethed on irony and a trans-generational jumble of styles wrenched out of context.
The dilution of the original source had already begun with the high-spirited but sanitized film version, produced by Robert Stigwood, which transposed the setting from a gritty urban environment to suburban California and put a disco spin on the music.
The current production takes the process much further, with an approach that reads as an index of how American pop culture has plundered and re-styled its immediate past. The Dick Clarkish disk jockey Vince Fontaine (Brian Bradley) has been reincarnated as a New Wave D.J-cum-M.C., who oversees the evening in a suit that Elvis Costello might wear to play Vegas. And there is an abundance of archly naive, two-dimensional visuals that evoke the advertising graphics of MTV and Nickelodeon.
There is also a sequence in which two players act out the ingenuously ribald love duet "Mooning" as blue-haired, 1970's-vintage punks behind a white picket fence, and a slumber party scene in which the musical's bad-girl sorority, the Pink Ladies, are attired in nighties that suggest lower-rent versions of costumes from "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public." And for fans of the movie, the soap opera heartthrob Ricky Paull Goldin, as super greaser Danny Zuko, has provided a slavish imitation of John Travolta's performance.
This "Grease!" is less a traditional musical than environmental funhouse theater or an animated jukebox. The arriving audience will find a pre-curtain show already in progress, with Vince Fontaine spinning classic 1950's records, strutting the aisles, spouting hipster patter, pulling theatergoers out of their seats to dance and generally whipping the audience into a pre-conditioned lather. The process is repeated at intermission and, bizarrely enough, in the middle of the second act, when a little girl is dragged on stage to be-bop with Fontaine to Bobby Day's recording of "Rockin' Robin."
The song is one of two genuine period numbers in the show; the other is the Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You," which is sung by the musical's white-bread, virginal heroine Sandy (Susan Wood). They have apparently been added to compensate for the loss of the top-40 hits written for the movie, which were sacrificed when Mr. Stigwood, who controls the rights to them and was originally (with Barry and Fran Weissler) a co-producer of the revival, pulled out of the show.
The idea seems to be that if the music is relentless and loud enough the audience will be swept into an irresistible, rhythmic tidal wave, and the crowd does indeed roar like groupies at a Beatles concert. (You'll find your foot keeping time, in a Pavlovian way.) But the effect is to blur the distinction between parody and prototype. Every number -- including the promising soul interpretation of "Beauty School Dropout," performed by a Little Richard-like Teen Angel (Billy Porter) -- suffers from overkill. And the sly, sassy musical satire of songs like "Summer Nights" and "Freddy, My Love" nearly evaporates.
Mr. Calhoun's choreography is less about dance than about props, which are used in configurations of people holding tires, flashlights and luminous Hula Hoops. The liveliest bona fide dancing comes from Sandra Purpuro, as the exotic outsider at the senior prom, and members of the audience.
The show's nominal star, Rosie O'Donnell, a winning film actress, may also be a winning stage actress, but you can't tell it from this. As the salty-mouthed, promiscuous Betty Rizzo, she affects a stiff, Alfred Hitchcock walk and a droll, deadpan delivery that conveys the character's tough defensiveness with none of her exuberant carnality.
Like nearly every other member of the cast, she is trapped in a cartoon straitjacket. Only Sam Harris, who transcends the homogenizing effects of amplification with a radiant version of "Those Magic Changes," and the winsome Jessica Stone, as the beauty school dropout, actually seem human.
Mr. Tune, Mr. Calhoun and Mr. and Mrs. Weissler obviously conceived this revival with the intention of replicating the success of "Tommy," which turned a 1960's rock opera into a slickly intelligent commentary on the era that spawned it. But this "Grease!" is a strained pastiche of a pastiche that was always two-dimensional anyway.
The draw for this revival of the fifth-longest-running show in Broadway history is Rosie O'Donnell, and perhaps it's fitting that an actress about to open on the big screen as Betty Rubble in "The Flintstones" proves something of a Neanderthal onstage as well. It seems odd to cast as the lead in a musical someone who, based on this performance, can't sing or dance -- unless, of course , singing and dancing are beside the point. The point is money, and this touring production lands at the beautifully restored O'Neill having already made plenty of it, so O'Donnell must be doing something right, even if it isn't singing or dancing.
Here O'Donnell plays another Betty -- greaser chick Rizzo, whose hubcap romance with Kenickie (Jason Opsahl) represents half of the show's modest plot. The language in "Grease" has been somewhat retrofitted to make it even more inoffensive than it was 22 years ago, though having a working-class high school girl dispatch her steady to the drugstore for tampons does jar somewhat, even if the interchange is only a heavy-handed plot device. "Grease" was, and it remains, a period piece.
As new-girl-in-town Sandy Dumbrowski, Susan Wood is pretty and has a swell voice that will certainly be put to better use soon. As her fickle beau, Danny Zuko, Ricky Paull Goldin is totally bland. Billy Porter, who recently played this theater as a Guy Named Moe, is now a soulful Teen Angel. Priming the crowd before the curtain rises, Brian Bradley is sweatily smarmy as the sweatily smarmy DJ Vince Fontaine. Hide your daughters.
Tommy ("I don't do revivals") Tune reputedly lent his name to this production to give his protege, Jeff Calhoun, a showcase while Tune himself worked on the "Best Little Whorehouse" revival -- I mean sequel -- a few blocks away. Calhoun needs some more protege-ing. The use of Hula-Hoops, tires and such in the choreography is vintage Tune, but the way they are used is effortful, derivative and vulgar. The staging is only slightly more competent.
John Arnone's Day-Glo designs are too garishly lit by Howell Binkley to be much fun, and Willa Kim's costumes range from unattractive black-and-white cartoon numbers to serviceable '50s styles. The music -- one song has been dropped and the Skyliners' hit "Since I Don't Have You" has been added for Sandy -- is well played and presented.
So if "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public" is for the tired businessman, is "Grease" for the tired teen? Whatever the case, tired is the operative word.