Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Original Grease: A Fun Blast From Someone Else's Past -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Original Grease
a new production based on the initial 1971 Chicago version
American Theater Company, Chicago
Through August 21, 2011

I have a great affinity for Chicago history, musical history and musical theater history. So I appreciate the sentiment behind Chicago's American Theater Company--likely following a suggestion surfaced by Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones--staging a new production of Grease that supposedly hews quite closely to the initial version that debuted at Chicago's Kingston Mines Theater in early 1971.

According to Jones and Wikipedia, the true original version, conceived & composed by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey based on Jacobs' days as a "greaser" at Chicago's Taft High School in the 1950s, was considerably grittier than the Broadway edition that bowed the next year, the 1978 movie and subsequent Broadway revivals and touring productions.

The basic storyline was the same, but assuming The Original Grease can be believed--even if it isn't an exact replica of the initial script and songs--it is clearly set on Chicago's Northwest Side (the movie was filmed in Venice, California with mountains in the background) and its score does not include several of the songs that would become best-known from the Broadway and especially Hollywood renditions. 

So from an archival, historical perspective, The Original Grease--which has been running at ATC since April and is currently extended until August 21--is rather interesting and even enjoyable in its own right. But where some have nostalgia for the 1971 version or perhaps the somewhat altered 1972 Broadway version that ran for several years or even for being a Chicago high schooler in 1959, I'm of an age that made the movie musical my initial introduction to--and still my favorite version of--Grease.

Thus, while it was interesting to hear the score open with "Foster Beach" rather than "Summer Nights," which it morphed into on Broadway, and several other unfamiliar tunes that had more of a true '50s rock feel than some of the movie's disco influenced flavorings, I can't deny missing the movie's version of the title song and "You're the One That I Want," among others.

Also, while I got more of a sense of greaser sensibilities than the movie portrayed, in providing greater Chicago 1950s teenage realism, the original narrative makes the Danny-Sandy romance a bit less central. On Saturday, I think I got an understudy as Danny, and though he wasn't bad, he also wasn't a young Travolta.

Certainly, Grease became legendary as a stage musical--initially running on Broadway for 8 years--but having been indoctrinated by the movie, even when I've seen touring productions (most recently in 2009) that appended the Broadway score with the well-known movie additions, I haven't found them all that satisfying.

All in all The Original Grease is probably the best stage version of the show I've seen, though this might have more to do with production values than the story and score. The performances were solid and several of the new old songs might stand up even better with familiarity. But I have the movie version with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John on DVD, and however sanitized and saccharine Grease may have become in spreading well beyond Norwood Park, that's still the one that I want.

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