Do you ever wonder how actors feel when they look back on roles they took early in their careers? How does Susan Sarandon feel about her turn in Rocky Horror? Does Angelina Jolie shudder when people mention her straight-to-video debut in Cyborg 2 as a sexy android? I hope Stockard Channing looks back on Grease with some pride. After all, wasn’t Rizzo one of the best parts of that movie? Who cares about that goody-goody Sandy and her sleazy would-be boyfriend Danny? Rizzo’s got all the best lines, except for maybe the unintentional hilarity of Olivia Newton-John awkwardly grinding out, “Tell me about it, stud” to a pre-Dianetics John Travolta. Rizzo also has the best dilemma, and Kenickie really is trying to do the right thing with her, unlike Sandy’s aforementioned sleazy would-be boyfriend who would later surface in a movie as a sleazy dreadlocked alien who takes way too long to die.
Grease has been the word since Valentine’s Day 1972 when the stage version opened in New York, where it ran continuously for eight years until it was toppled by A Chorus Line. The screen adaptation was the highest-grossing movie musical of all time (Moulin Rouge, at $175 million worldwide, is only about halfway there). Screen sequel Grease 2 didn’t accomplish much more than giving Michelle Pfeiffer her first leading role (is she looking back nostalgically, or trying to burn all the copies?). Embarrassing sequels and knockoffs aside, Grease, while thinly plotted, has a lot going for it both onstage or onscreen: catchy music, lyrics that cling, and a view of the ’50s that manages to capture both the fantasy (sock hops and malt shops) and the reality (broken condoms and teenage alienation).
Contra Costa Civic Theatre comes through again with a batch of talented youngsters singing and dancing their little hearts out. Unlike the movie, here we get actual teenagers playing teenagers. Fans of the Newton-John and Travolta version will appreciate how carefully this show replicates those parts of the movie that overlap with the Civic’s production. Still, I’m a little disappointed at how slavish the mimicking is, down to certain dance moves and vocal maneuvers, with Danny’s nasal falsetto at the end of “Summer Nights” the best example. I guess you don’t mess with the canon, but I found myself wishing that the actors and director had taken more risks.
Kerry Wininger, who was so much fun as Baby Rose in the recent Willows production of Babes in Arms, takes the lead here as the proper Sandy opposite Simon Trumble as Danny. Her high, sweet voice and impressive sustains contrast well with nemesis Angel Almeida, who while maybe a touch too acid as Rizzo, has a fantastic throaty singing voice that really carries. And that’s helpful in this theater. The Civic is trying to raise $600,000 to make needed changes; hopefully part of that money will go straight to the amplification fund.
While in my world this story is about a heavily armored girl who’s only bad because that’s the role society has given her, I understand that for most people Grease is more about how Sandy and Danny reinvent themselves to be what they believe the other wants. It’s interesting that in the film, although Sandy has made a tremendous sacrifice to get close to Danny, he has made his own sacrifice (“While you guys were stealing hubcaps, I was lettering in track,” he tells his unbelieving pals) to get her attention. It’s a theme that isn’t explored as fully in the stage version, where Sandy follows through on her transformation but Danny, apparently, does not.
An acquaintance recently said something telling about the value of productions like this one: “Sometimes, I don’t go to a show hoping it will change me, or turn me inside out. Sometimes I just want to be entertained.” Contra Costa Civic’s Grease is an engaging, if light, effort that its teenage stars will be able to look back on without wincing.