Musical Theater West’s ‘Grease’ Transcends Nostalgia

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When I was a child I saw Fat in the cinema, had the 45 of “Summer Nights”. A decade later, I watched it on videotape and caught snippets on TV in subsequent years. None of this made much of an impression. A few mediocre theatrical productions sprinkled in there didn’t help.

On a Sunday near the start of the pandemic, CBS-TV aired the sung version of the film (bouncing ball to help you keep up, 4K colors dialed to neon proportions). I thought to myself: why not? Joining my comrades from the Pacific time zone felt like a welcome diversion from the horrid reality outside.

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From the first commercial break, I was captivated. FatI realized, is one of the great musicals, period. The iconic songs are masterpieces of pop craftsmanship. There is a transgressive absurdity beneath the surface of the cornball. You can’t take your eyes off John Travolta. Do you want to talk about choreography, energy? Dig the “Born to Hand-Jive” epic. And Danny and Sandy are off to space – literally!

No staging can live up to that. But with a strong voice cast, some clever twists, and clever production design, Musical Theater West manages a show worth seeing, even if you know it.

That’s doubly impressive when you consider that in the week before opening, the show lost six – count them: six – the cast and crew of COVID-19, forcing those who remain standing to rehearse until 6:30 p.m. before the 8 p.m. curtain opens.

But after a superfluous prologue framing the next two hours as a high school reunion flashback to the class of 1959, there were the first strains of “Grease,” a wonderful piece of Bee Gee tune written for the film, and it looked like everything would be fine. The band was boxed in, the cast sang very well, and what the production design lacked in ambition it more than made up for in quiet quality.

Aside from ‘Grease’ and ‘Summer Nights’ – the pivotal number to be to set things in motion, with Monika Peña and Jonah Ho’okano making solid Sandy & Danny, plus fantastic support from the rest of the gang – Act One’s best numbers are “Those Magic Changes” and “Freddy, My Love,” musically inadmissible (not to mention completely plot-dispensable) songs made memorable by respective leads Kris Bona and Janaya Mahealani Jones. Bona in particular works his throwaway four-chord to thrilling effect, with musical director Jan Roper getting more than he’s worth out of it.

The most obvious weakness before intermission is C. Wright’s choreography – sometimes literal overly simplistic (do we really need Sandy to hold up 10 fingers to tell us “We stayed out until 10”? Half the lines get this treatment), sometimes oddly clunky (“Greased Lightnin'” becomes endless), almost always particularly static. Perhaps throwing the best vocal mesh – with obvious success whenever there are backing vocals – led to a gap in overall dance ability, and so Wright and director Snehal Desai made up for it with simplicity. ?

The best movement elements in Act One don’t come with songs. As Patty Simcox, Devan Watring is pretty fun the moment she opens her mouth but absurdly hilarious when she cartwheels in place. And she’s front and center minutes later when an old-school Rydell High cheerleading practice takes an anachronistic turn into a full-fledged funky step routine. So clever/fun that even this spoiler won’t spoil it.

Things relax a little after the intermission. The brilliance of the costume color alone helps the opening of act two “Shakin’ at the High School Hop”. Next is “Born to Hand-Jive”, which sends the energy to new heights (even if the band hits the ceiling prematurely – they need more horns), while simple, clever play and blocking moves our attention from couple to couple as effectively as any projector could, except better to never lose the whole thing.

It’s a tough act to follow, made even harder by the fact that it’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” written expressly to feature Olivia Newton-John’s bugle flutes. But that’s no problem for Janaya Mahealani Jones, whose command is such that we don’t need anything else on stage to distract us.

Now we have to talk about Darius Rose and his (even the program can’t stay straight (no pun intended (ok, maybe a little))) double drag tour as Rydell’s Miss Lynch and guardian angel by Frenchy. You might think Lynch was written as a drag role, so natural is the form when Rose appears on stage. If the funny fairyland he/she/they show in the first act was all there was, fine. But not only Rose (whom you may know better as Jackie Cox from RuPaul’s Drag Race) do more with Lynch in act two, but from the first word of the intro to “Beauty School Dropout” (“Girrrl…”), Rose destroys. Desai and Roper know a good thing when they’ve got it, and they hang around the song for as long as they dare, including a one-coda gospel rave-up and a cover. We love every delicious second.

Perhaps inevitably, the show drifts away from here. Part of the problem is the plot – whoever decided to add motor racing to the film knew a thing or two about pacing – and of the remaining six issues, two are reshoots (including a finale that doesn’t brings nothing new to the table), and two are instantly forgettable. For the rest, an almost total lack of visuals handicaps the strong “There are worse things I could do” by Isa Briones (three numbers in half an hour by more or less static singers with practically nothing else happening on stage are two too many); and “You’re the One That I Want” is the only song the band falls short of, burying what should be a tight, bass-centric groove in muddy, hazy orchestration.

Nevertheless, the net result makes this Fat more than to see. It’s not just a nostalgic trip – Fat is the word.

Fat at the Musical Theater West

The show runs until July 24.

Time: Fri. – 8 p.m., Sat. – 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sun. – 1 p.m.

Cost: from $20

Details: (562) 856-1999, musical.org

Venue: Carpenter Performing Arts Center (6200 W. Atherton, Long Beach)

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