NEW YORK – What have America's television watchers wrought?
They chose the two leads in the latest Broadway revival of "Grease," that seemingly indestructible homage to '50s high school life. And their decision, first announced in March on NBC's "Grease: You're the One That I Want," has proven to be a mixed bag, sort of like the new production itself.
But then, this is "Grease," a musical not exactly ready-made for innovative reinterpretation, despite the best efforts here of director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall. She's the woman who made recent New York productions of "The Pajama Game" and "Wonderful Town" work.
Yet Marshall's take on "Grease," which opened Sunday at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, moves in fits and starts, slowing down when the music and dancing stop and the sketchy story steps center stage.
The show, first seen on Broadway in 1972 and then again in 1994, certainly has its fans. Maybe it's because Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, display an obvious affection for the period — a rock 'n' roll era of burger palaces, sock hops, poodle skirts and black leather jackets. That enthusiasm comes out most prominently in their score, which, unfortunately, has been diluted with a few of the more generic songs (written by others) from the wildly successful film version.
The tale could not be more simple. Bad boy Danny Zuko, leader of the T-birds, falls for virginal Sandy Dumbrowski, who aspires for a place in the Pink Ladies, the T-birds' female counterpart. Sandy eventually learns that vice will get you farther than virtue at Rydell High.
Now, about those television-annointed leads. As Danny, Max Crumm gives a cautious performance, vocally OK but short on swagger and sex appeal. Laura Osnes nicely gets Sandy's transformation, morphing with enthusiasm from good girl to bad babe. Check out her skintight outfit in the last scene, courtesy of designer Martin Pakledinaz. Osnes also sings well and throws herself into Marshall's spirited choreography.
So does the rest of the cast, who appear to be running on an inexhaustible supply of energy. That energy gets used to the fullest in Marshall's choreography, particularly in her witty reworking of the big dance-contest number, "Born to Hand-Jive," featuring the nimble Natalie Hill as the fabulous Cha-Cha DiGregorio. Marshall keeps the energy spinning from couple to couple, building an enthusiasm that demonstrates why she is one of the best choreographers on Broadway.
Because "Grease" doesn't get much beyond stereotypes, it's not easy keeping the secondary characters from descending into caricature. For the most part, the actors keep the cliches at bay.
Dramatic and vocal honors go to Jenny Powers as Rizzo, the quintessential tough girl who refuses to let the other Pink Ladies see her cry. Rizzo's philosophy is explained in "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," the one song in "Grease" that attempts to define character. Powers makes it work.
Other standouts: Lindsay Mendez, a genial, sweet-tempered Jan, and strong-voiced Daniel Everidge, an enthusiastic Roger. Everidge actually turns one of the show's sillier songs, "Mooning," into something that is more entertaining than it has any right to be.
As the musical's authority figures, Susan Blommaert garners a few smiles as the prim teacher Miss Lynch, Jeb Brown oozes insincerity as smarmy disc jockey Vince Fontaine and Stephen R. Buntrock displays a laugh-producing narcissism as the Teen Angel who croons "Beauty School Dropout"
The orchestra, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, is perched on a catwalk above the stage. Grigsby, who also plays the synthesizer, puts on quite a show herself, particularly after the actors have taken their curtain calls at the end of the musical and she lets the band rock theatergoers out of the Brooks Atkinson.
In the end, the appeal of "Grease" may lie in the universal desire to belong. The T-birds and Pink Ladies of "Grease" pretend to be cheerfully anarchic, rebelling against the squareness of the Eisenhower era. Yet in reality, conformity is all. They just want to be part of the gang, something this revival only fitfully celebrates.