Reviewed by David Spencer
I'm not sure I can parse what I have to say in entirely logical terms, so bear with me through a slight philosophical leap. Understand, too, the contradiction of this is that I'm all for "populist theatre" as a subgenre: I don't care if a theatrical enterprise is borne of an impulse to further merchandise a trademark or franchise property, so long as the work is good and worthy. I mean, dig it: Max Allan Collins is an Edgar Award winning mystery novelist; are his mystery novels any less artful when they're for-hire commissions based on the TV show CSI? Not to me, they aren't. Russell T Davies was already one of the most powerful and innovative writer-producers in British television (among other significant achievements, he created and wrote the original UK version of Queer as Folk) when he decided he wanted to turn his attentions to resurrecting a childhood favorite, Doctor Who. In the published book of first season scripts, he wrote about people questioning his choice to do genre stuff rather than "serious drama," to which his response was that no one who thinks Doctor Who a lesser animal can ever have truly watched it: Speaking of the versatile format it allows for storytelling, he asserted, "It's the best drama in the world," and after a fashion, he's 100% right. And proved it with an inspired renovation that turned the revival into what is currently the UK's biggest hit, three seasons in a row.
But what Collins and Davies have in common—what, indeed, they have in common with, for example, the creative team that worked on the hugely populist Legally Blonde: The Musical just to bring this home to matters theatrical—is that they're artists and dreamers in their own right, and they've worked hard to demonstrate it successfully. And if the mandate is to squeeze more juice out of a property for a hungry public…why not?
It's one thing to create nobly for the public (which in this context really means trademark-conscious consumers), because the best and most responsible artists, even when working with licensed characters and concepts, always raise the bar and reach for excellence. They don't even do it with conscious effort, most of the time, it's just part of the work ethic. It's what a professional dreamer does reflexively; choice doesn't enter into it.
But giving the public a seat on the creative team, letting them participate? As Curly Howard would say: Ngong. That's rule by the philosophy of, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." Because the public only knows what it likes based on other things it has liked before, not based on a vision interested in exploring something new, or exploring something old in a new way. Nor even an expert's vision of an established template. And no reason that it should. It's not the public's job to. (The difference between a pro like Max Allan Collins working a franchise and most amateur authors of "fan fiction" doing the same is pretty much the difference between whacked out street poets and Shakespeare.) The public is not, collectively, a dreamer. And therefore shoots lower in its aspirations.
The public had a vote in casting the leads of the new revival of Grease; it was done via nationally televised reality show competition.
And predictably, the leads are both perfectly competent professionals, no better and no worse than other, adequately cast, perfectly competent professionals would be. But if they're better than bland, they're hardly (at this point in their careers, anyway, and in these roles) high octane stars. Their selection hearkens to what I said earlier about letting the public sway the process. Both Max Crumm as "bad boy" Danny Zuko and Laura Osnes as "good girl" Sandy Dumbrowski make safe, comfortable, somewhat familiar choices in archetype roles.
Okay now, here's the leap.
The decision to piggy back the theatrical process onto reality show faddishness speaks to a larger lack of vision that informs the whole finished production. Because it's a mediocre idea. And per the above, unintentionally encourages, even has as its inevitable goal, mediocrity. And mediocrity sought (however unintentionally) in one department pretty much guarantees mediocrity (at best) achieved in all departments. Beyond this slender filament of proposed causal connection, I can't tell you why Kathleen Marshall's production cannot have been other than lackluster. I can only assert that, sure as plain rhymes with mundane, the reason is wedded to the casting gimmick being at the point of conception, and thus a fundamental problem at the root.
Now by "lackluster," I don't mean disastrous. It's all respectably polished. The rendering at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is formulaically attractive—but by and large juiceless. The fun of Grease has always been our blithe acceptance of late twentysomething/early thirtysomething actors playing high school seniors, but the balancing act is achieved by creating a heightened sense of the 1950s. In this new Grease, however, adults are playing kids without that sense of period. Oh, there are high school lockers on the set, the right posturing in the choreography, indicative hair styles and costumes, the signature do-wops and whee-ooos in the music...but none of it adds up to a cohesive mood or atmosphere. And indeed, this is telegraphed right at the top, though deceptively, you don't realize what happened until later:
The show kicks off with the ultra cool funk of the title song Barry Gibb wrote for the movie. Putting aside the fact that interpolating songs into an established hit property by writers who didn't write the show score is Hollywood's insanity, not the theatre's, the irony is, Mr. Gibb's is a kickass number, and a far better one than Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs wrote for that spot (a high school anthem to set time and place, which is immediately parodied to establish irreverence). It's even more interesting, in establishing the term "grease" as the metaphor for an era's philosophy about what constitutes hipness. And I must say, for me it's the most successfully staged and performed number in the revival. So what's the problem?
The problem is—it is cool. The problem is—it is funky. The problem is—it's thoughtful, hip, controlled, performed with a pressure-cooker slow-boil that makes it a kissin' cousin to "Cool" in West Side Story.
And that's not Grease, which is boisterous, ragingly hormonal and stylistically over-the-top. The current opening number sets up a somewhat "realer" show than exists on the page, and the rest of the evening tries to walk a fine line between the two extremes, with the result that it's neither one nor the other. And the rest of the cast, gifted professionals all, are thus forced into a level of supporting mediocrity.
And is the Gibb number included because the general public, who cast their vote on the cast, think they know the show but really know the film, and are expecting it? I have no idea what the creative team discussed and decided on consciously, but it almost doesn't matter; the domino effect of letting "reality" show gimmickry lead the way, of pandering to the public, is visible everywhere.
All this said, let's be candid about Grease. It is, itself, a novelty show, it was never really art, the maintenance of the original 1972 Broadway run was famously insufficient (as the years went by and the performance count broke into the thousands [ultimately 3,338]; it got to the point where it was one of a triumvirate of shows late replacement actors learned to keep off their resumes if they were to be taken seriously, the other two being Hair and Oh! Calcutta!) and it kept on selling, both in NYC and on tour. It was always a show that spoke to—for lack of a less condescending phrase, and I don't mean it to be—a lowest common denominator. So why should any of this carping over production philosophy really mean anything?
There's a line in the musical 1776. One of the congressmen, Lyman Hall of New Jersey, has been struggling for days (all evening from our perspective) with whether or not to vote for American independence from Great Britain. He's for it, but the public he was elected to represent is against it. Finally, he says to our hero, John Adams:
"In trying to resolve my dilemma, I remembered something I'd once read." And he quotes Edmund Burke—ironically, as Burke is a member of British parliament. "...'that a representative owes the people not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.'"
Swap out representative for artist and people for audience...and you can't say it better than that...