By Sean McMullen
Oh, those summer nights so long ago brought together by a familiar refrain.
Swirling across the stage of the Musical Theater West, “Grease” is a fever dream of nostalgic fun. Does that make sense? Kind of. Does it involve you deeply in the inner life of its characters? No.
Does it make you want to sing with you? Absolutely!
“Grease” was always meant to push all of our sentimental buttons. In 1971, it was a comedic, honest look at working-class teenagers in Chicago. Most have no idea how crude and right the original version was. It was a send-off from an era that was beginning to be idolized by conservatives as it came to an end – a barbed reminder that there was a segment of society that hadn’t gotten its American dream during these last 20 years.
Laced with F-bombs and dirty lyrics, it was cleaned up and straightened out in the same glossy Hollywood wrapper it spoofed. John Travolta and Olivia Newton John have become the Frankies and Annettes of my generation. There were still vestiges of the raw glory of the 1971 script in the lyrics of “Greased Lightning,” an ode to a clunker whose owner dreams of transforming.
This version at Musical Theater West once again cleans everything up and creates a pastiche of the previous version and the movie. So Greased Lightning, the “pussywagon” of my youth, becomes the much safer draggin’ wagon, and girls will now just scream at the sight of it. None of this, however, diminishes the vibration of the music or the brightness with which it is performed.
The ensemble here, including the crew, had to navigate their way through a rehearsal period hampered by multiple COVID positives. It made them lean, mean, and determined to succeed in giving you a good time. The ensemble is an intentionally diverse group of people who, in Executive Director Paul Garman’s own words, are meant to reflect the beautiful diversity of Long Beach.
Monika Peña (Sandy) and Jonah Ho’okano (Danny) rise to the top of an already creamy cast. While the script doesn’t spend as much time with them as the movie, it’s really not their relationship and its reality that matters. It touches our hearts with the new singles “Hopelessly Devoted” and “Sandy”. With the trail of the 1978 film looping through most Gen Xers’ heads, these two don’t disappoint.
Neither did supporting actors Isa Briones (Rizzo) and Kris Bona (Doody). Briones takes on “There Are Worse Things” and indeed her presence throughout felt most like this older version of the series, tough, seasoned and visceral. Bona as Doody begins his energetic “Those Magic Changes” with a ukulele – a wonderful addition that I wish I had kept throughout.
The wonderful diversity of the cast was kind of alluded to by director Snehal Desai. The ukulele doesn’t even get to the end of the song. And later, a Spanish introduction from a singer is followed by that singer doing the song entirely in English. I wish they leaned hard.
Musical director Jan Roper and choreographer Corey Wright clearly worked above and beyond to put together this delightful jigsaw of a show together, but the most inspired idea was casting season 12 runner-up “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” “, Darius Rose “Jackie Cox” as Mrs. Lynch/Teen Angel. Rose will leave you wanting more, as she is a talented queen with perfect balance and timing. She polishes this retro neon of an evening that will make you dream Oh, these summer nights.
MTW’s “Grease” continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E Atherton St. through July 24. It is not recommended for children under 14.
Tickets cost between $20 and $96. More details can be found at musical.org.