Listerine, Please

Grease leaves a bad aftertaste at Cain Park.

Grease Cain Park's Evans Amphitheater, along Superior Avenue between Lee and South Taylor roads, Cleveland Heights Through July 3; 216-371-3000
That V-8 vibe eludes these Burger Palace Boys.
That V-8 vibe eludes these Burger Palace Boys.
Before a director even thinks of doing a new version of Grease, the Broadway (and then Hollywood) musical tribute to 1950s' high school wet dreams, he'd better make sure he revels in that time period. The show is a love letter to the hoods, dorks, and grinds who made secondary education during the Eisenhower years such a mixture of naivete and bravado. And from a more practical perspective, the director also should be confident that he's got a handful of actor-hoodlums who can scowl and strut. The rambunctious energy of Grease must be fueled by the cartoon-dangerous, bad-boy ethic of kids who'd rather fine-tune a carburetor than diagram a sentence.

Regrettably, Cain Park's director Eric van Baars misses on both counts; he never catches the rumbling V-8 vibe of the '50s, and his casting and/or guidance of the male roles is remarkably uninspired. In fact, the Burger Palace Boys in this production are about as ornery as a Future Librarians club. Their supposed leader, the fabled and über-macho Danny Zuko, is given such a low-key performance by Keith Faris that onstage he sometimes disappears completely. The fellows who play his gang members are equally charisma-challenged, with a couple who additionally possess minimal performance skills.

Due to this unfortunate absence of greaser zeitgeist, the teen tension and fantasy dreamscape of this Grease disappear into the night air. Sensing a lack of edge, the director (who doubles as choreographer) tries to substitute some sexy-sleazy moves in his dance numbers --most notably a number of (wink-wink) face-to-crotch swoops and twirls. Meanwhile he essentially abandons the dialog scenes, which devolve into lumpy word scrums without pace, beats, or comic invention.

On the plus side, the show's many familiar tunes are presented with passable spirit, and the distaff gang members are an interesting bunch. The Pink Ladies' slut-in-chief is Betty Rizzo, whom Meg Cavanaugh renders with an appropriate sneer and hip thrust. Aly Friedman, as Frenchy, the sweet would-be hairdresser, is consistently frothy and featherheaded, and her duet with Chris Thomas's Teen Angel, "Beauty School Dropout," is cute. So is the hand-jive dance sequence featuring a lithe and pompadoured Jason Samuel as Johnny Casino.

Sadly, Charlotte M. Yetman's massively unimaginative set design doesn't help the players interact, left as they are to group themselves in clusters across the stage. But the biggest gaffe is director van Baars's mismanagement of the scene in which candy-ass Sandy (plucky Michele Scully) is transformed into the va-va-vamp of Rydell High. Even without the pulse-quickening song that was added to the movie version ("You're the One That I Want"), this moment must raise goosebumps of excitement. Instead, it falls flat. Insult is added to injury when Sandy, turned suddenly mean, rears back and whacks the goody-goody cheerleader. This feels like a slap in the face to everyone who treasures the goofy warmth of what Grease is meant to be. That's detention for you, van Baars.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.