Like many women I know, I grew up watching “Grease,” and though I have seen several renditions of the 1971 musical, from high school to live TV productions, I still couldn’t tell you what it’s actually about. Is it nostalgia? Is it satire? Is it a love story?
That enigma aside, “Grease” is undoubtedly one of the most beloved and popular musicals of all time. It returns to the Starlight Theatre stage for the first time since 2006, directed by Philip Wm. McKinley, in his 11th directorial effort at Starlight.
You most likely know the story, but to recap: Sandy Dumbrowski is the new girl at Rydell High. She spent an enchanted summer with Danny Zuko, the head of a greaser gang, but when they encounter each other at school, he tries to downplay their relationship. While the Pink Ladies tease Sandy for being (as they see it) a sheltered goody two-shoes, Danny half-heartedly tries to make up with Sandy.
It’s an odd thing for a show so long-lived that the plot doesn’t really make much sense. There’s nothing actually keeping Danny and Sandy apart, beyond a sense of not knowing what they want. Characterization and desire are weak points in the script.
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Heidi Webster is nice as Sandy. She sounds good, especially in “Hopelessly Devoted,” one of the few songs she actually gets to sing. Unfortunately, Sandy as a character is hardly anything other than “nice.” Timothy Michael Quinn seems to be trying a little too hard to channel John Travolta as Danny. He’s handsome, but his line readings feel stiff and unnatural, leaving Danny feeling more like an idea than a person.
More memorable than the leads are the actors in supporting roles. Lindsey Olson’s stage presence and her strong, deep voice make Rizzo an audience favorite. Anthony Norman proves delightful as Doody, who’s song “Those Magic Changes” has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot but is one of the best songs of the night. And Quentin Brown graces the audience with an R&B version of the Teen Angel’s “Beauty School Dropout” that’s the freshest and most fun part of the show.
Starlight has opted to do a version of the musical that incorporates songs from the 1978 film (“You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted”), and it’s also adopted many of the film’s costumes, hairstyles and characterization. It’s no doubt a move to appeal to the movie’s many fans, but it feels like a missed opportunity to put some kind of original tweak or twist on an old show.
This production’s answer to what this play is about seems to lie somewhere between “friends” and “high school.” But maybe it’s unfair to ask for something deeper. “Grease” is a musical with infectious songs and cool, retro costumes. There are worse things.
“Grease” continues at Starlight Theatre through Sept. 14. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.