"Grease" is the Word – My Critique

Broadway Across Canada has hit Edmonton in a big way.  Or better yet, they have hit Edmonton with a word, and the word is “GREASE”.

“Grease”is the story of a group of teens in their senior year of high school in 1959. Facing the same trials, tribulations, and joie de vivre as high school students in all decades, it is an enactment of being a teen in any day and age. When newbie student Sandy appears at Rydell High, unbeknownst to her summer heart throb Danny, things get a little uncomfortable. Sandy, a good girl doesn’t seem to understand how Danny, the leader of a “gang” known as the T-Birds, can deny the feelings they shared over the summer. It is your usual coming of age story. With the help of their respective groups of friends, Sandy and Danny evenually get together, but not without some huge changes, mainly for Sandy, in their styles and behaviour. The central theme of the movie is young love and the interpersonal relationships between a diverse group of high school kids.

Thanks to Tamara Stecyk and the Edmonton Journal, I had an opportunity to see the musical that rocked a generation, or more, on Tuesday evening.  From beginning to end I found myself back in 1978 when the popular Broadway musical hit the big screen starring Olivia Newton John (Sandy) and John Travolta (Danny).  For two hours, and an intermission, there I was rocking in my seat like a teenager all over again.  Save for an odd sound coming from the seat beside me, it was an awesome evening of theater and music.

From the moment Eddie Mekka, “The Big Ragu” of Laverne and Shirley fame, hit the stage to the moment the stage turned black at the very end of the show, I was rivetted.  From the colourful, tastefully toned down jokes Mekka told at the beginning of the show, through his successful attempts to engage the capacity crowd at the Northern Alberta Jubillee Auditorium, right to the end of the show, the 1950’s came to the 21st century like they were only yesterday. Let me say, Mecca did a very believable Vince Fontaine, the dirty old man DJ and judge of the Rydell High hand jive contest.  To be fair, let’s just say, he showed his real age.

The casting of the play was bang on.  Lauren Elaine Taylor made, the trashy, tough, yet vulnerable, Betty rizzo come to life with a believability second to none.  Patrick Cragin, as Kenickie, played to Taylor’s Rizzo like they were born as two different people who, in theatre, become the perfect couple.  Judging by the applause of the crowd at the end, second in raucousness only to the show’s stars Nolan and Herrera, Taylor and Cragin were a huge hit!

Hugely well casted was Matt Nolan as Danny Zuko.  His ability to pull off the, once again, tough yet vulnerable, person of Danny Zuko, brought a realism to the stage that carried the whole 50’s theme off perfectly.  I would say I think he may have gotten carried away with the whole New York accent.  By the end of the play I was wishing his voice was deeper and the accent just seemed a little less contrived.  Otherwise, his powerful voice and tremendous range, including an amazing falsetto, allow him to pull off the raucous whiny music of the 50’s perfectly.

In contrast to Nolan’s in your face, loud and clear, ability to boom out the amazing music of the play, Alyssa Herrera as Sandy is barely audible from 8 rows back in the theatre.  I wondered as I was trying to hear her voice during her duet of “Raining on Prom Night”, sung with Lauren Turner’s Jan, and the ever-loved “You’re the One That I Want” with Nolan, if her microphone was just too low.  I also wondered if they could hear her in the back of the second balcony.  Either way, her voice was way too low, or was it technical?

Attending the show on Wednesday night, I found myself with two dillemas.  The first was my own fault.  I couldn’t see the stage, even with my glasses on.  Yes I was up in the nosebleed section.   located in the second last row of the second balcony the answer to my previous evening’s question was answered.  It was impossible to hear Herrera unless she was the only one singing or speaking at the time.  Judging from the clarity of her voice, it seems to me the problem was one of a technical nature.  Do the sound guys go up to the top row, with a full house, and attempt to hear what the audience is hearing?

So, though the show was well acted, with very smooth transitions, not to mention some ingenious stage work in creating Greased Lightning, just the fact that it was so difficult to hear Herrera during her musical interactions with the other performers, enough was taken away from the production for me to somewhat disappointed.  Yet, being disappointed with the single sound issue did not ruin the experience for me.  Far from it.  The dancing and the orchestration allowed me to thoroughly enjoy a the trip back to the 50’s and the revisiting of, for me, 1978.

Would I tell my friends and family to see the show?  You bet.  Given the opportunity I would see it again in a heartbeat.  Truly for the entire 2 hours “GREASE” was the word!  Judging by the middle aged and older folks who were rockin’ in their seats, and the school group on Wednesday night who were on their feet Hand Jiving and doing the “monkey” the show is a hit for most ages!!  I would, however, not call it a family show.  The language, sexual conotations and gestures, namely the one finger salute and crotch grabbing, do not lend this play to a younger crowd.  Perhaps a PG-14 rating would be more accurate.



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