Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see Karen's recent review of Grease
Stancato brings the show back to the Chicago roots (complete, I think, with a bottle of Jeppson's Malört at the beginning of Act II) of Jim Jacobs, who created it along with Warren Casey (additional songs by John Farrar). Jeffrey Kmiec's scenic design projects the skyline, pre-Hancock, and Sears Tower, of course, above the proscenium.
The downstage brick walls, with their vintage Jewel ads and others proclaiming "Mówimy po polsku" offer a nod to the show's earlier days when the characters' ethnicities were more pronounced. Using a series of nested prosceniums, a garage door, some bleachers, and a handful of sets that roll in and out from the wings, Kmiec's set facilitates brisk scene changes and complex, crowded dance numbers to keep the show rolling.
John Burkland's lighting design also plays a big role in giving things that glittering, saturated 1950s feel. Bars of light frame the stage, flashing dark red or bright white as needed to suffuse scenes with even more energy. And the lighting is nothing short of spectacular in supporting the on-stage dream transformation of Kenickie's truly tragic beater into his imagined Grease Lightning.
The show would suffer a potentially fatal blow without costumes to capture the nostalgia-filtered era, and Rachel Boylan's design is more than up to the challenge. Rizzo's skin-tight capris and halter tops are as perfect as Sandy's demure, full-skirted dresses and Keds. Equally important is Emily Young's outstanding hair and wig design. The skills of both Young and Boylan are on full display in "Beauty School Dropout," the number that really brings the house down, thanks to the charisma and heart-melting voice of Evan Tyrone Martin as Frenchy's Teen Angel.
In terms of musical and narrative choices, Stancato and musical director Michael McBride strike a balance between the original Broadway production, the movie, and the revivals of late last century. "Grease" immediately follows the opening of Act I after Miss Lynch (played to comedic perfection by Kyra Leigh) calls the assembly to order. Act II includes the big movie numbers, "Hopelessly Devoted," "Sandy," and "You're the One That I Want," but curiously omits "It's Raining on Prom Night."
These choices reflect the fact that the production is leaning into the decidedly Hollywood "teen rebel" vibe, and that it is less exclusively about Danny and Sandy and more interested in the dynamics of the entire group. For the most part, these decisions pay off. The relationships between the other couples, as well as within the Pink Ladies and the Burger Palace Boys, are engaging. Toward the end of Act II, the choice to shift focus from couple to couple throughout the show undercuts the Sandy/Danny resolution slightly, and Rizzo and Sandy are suddenly cordial to one another with little explanation after they part on bad terms after Rizzo's presumed pregnancy is revealed. But the weaknesses are minor and well lost in the pleasure of watching and listening to this cast.
As Danny, Jake DiMaggio Lopez is far less relentlessly cool than Travolta. He is not only a terrific singer and dancer, his take on the role imparts some interesting vulnerability, and there's a genuine sweetness in seeing someone who believably reads as a teenager play the part.
Emily Schultheis is equally talented as Sandy, and where DiMaggio Lopez plays Danny as a bit more naive and uncertain than is typical, Schultheis is effectively less naive than the typical portrayal. This both keeps the saccharine elements of the character somewhat in check and makes the transformation at the end feel more logical and earned.
Billy Rude (Kenickie) and Alina Taber (Rizzo), in contrast, read as slightly older and more world-weary. But as the volatile couple repeatedly breaks up and comes back together, the two show real vulnerability that makes the pregnancy scare read as something more meaningful, rather than a kind of eleventh hour afterthought.
As Frenchy, Ciara Stroud is delightfully dotty and lovable. Stroud clicks so well with the other cast members and plays the unlikely peacemaker so believably, it's a shame that Frenchy doesn't really have a song of her own. Similarly, Anna Louise Bramlett is so appealing as Marty that the character is missed when she fades a bit into the background after knocking it out of the park with "Freddy, My Love."
Elizabeth Stenholt (Jan) and Nik Kmiecik (Roger) are a complete delight as the comic relief couple. Their raunchy yet somehow sweet dance to "Mooning" is unforgettable.
In other supporting roles, Ben Dow is charming as Doody and does a bang-up job with "Those Magic Changes." As Cha-Cha, Emily Scinto does exactly the right amount of scene stealing.
Grease runs through June 4, 2023, at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace IL. For tickets and information, please visit DruryLaneTheatre.com or call 630-530-0111.