Marriott Theatre’s ‘Grease’ rolls out the rock, but little is endearing in surprisingly bland staging

It’s the difference between playing the hits, a service this show performs quite adequately, and making an impact. In this “Grease,” the hits rarely land.

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Leryn Turlington and Jimmy Nicholas star in “Grease” at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Leryn Turlington and Jimmy Nicholas star in “Grease” at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Liz Lauren

Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s classic American musical “Grease” might be set in the Eisenhower 1950s, but it is squarely a product of the swinging, counterculture 1970s.

Focusing on the greaser T-Birds and cigarette-puffing Pink Ladies, adopting the group’s horndog, stick-it-to-the-man ethos as its own, “Grease” stuffs the clean-living Cleavers in a trash can and rolls it down the hill.

The show might seem tame by today’s standards, but it’s wilder than you remember.

‘Grease’

‘Grease’ Marriott

When: Through March 15

Where: Marriott Lincolnshire, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire

Tickets: $50–$60

Info: MarriottTheatre.com

Run time: 2 hours, including one intermission


But it’s that rebellious spirit that director Scott Weinstein can’t quite conjure in this dutiful yet disappointingly bland production.

Despite a generally winning cast — and a score that still, nearly 50 years later, delivers astoundingly well — the show finds itself at a loss.

Done properly, “Grease” has a PG-13-friendly kind of edge. Its characters fight and drink and smoke and skip school. They even have sex. They’re not dangerous. But when they’re around, there’s danger in the air.

Except there isn’t — not this time. Even the Fonz had more edge.

Perhaps the best way to capture the sizzle that this production lacks is to describe that one scene that’s undeniably got plenty of it: the school-dance sequence that opens Act 2, culminating in the furious “Born to Hand Jive” dance-off. By the time that contest kicks off, the room is crackling with teenage hormones. As the cast swarms the stage, bumping and grinding and swinging its way through William Carlos Angulo’s electric choreography, there’s a giddy sense of a neatly ordered world swaying perilously off its axis.

And when the sweet, homeward-bound Sandy interrupts to sing her lonely ballad “It’s Raining on Prom Night,” actress Leryn Turlington blows the roof off the joint.

Tiffany T. Taylor, Landree Fleming, Jacquelyne Jones and Michelle Lauto are the Pink Ladies in “Grease” at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Tiffany T. Taylor, Landree Fleming, Jacquelyne Jones and Michelle Lauto are the Pink Ladies in “Grease” at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Liz Lauren

Elsewhere, the show sags. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine the whirlwind summer romance between Danny Zuko (Jimmy Nicholas) and Sandy extolled in “Summer Nights,” when the two have so little opportunity to build chemistry.

And while Danny’s fellow T-Birds — Kevin Corbett as Kenickie, Michael Kurowski as Doody, Jake Elkins as Roger and Jack Cahill-Lemme as Sonny — work hard to gin up the script’s meandering plot, it’s their counterparts in the Pink Ladies who succeed. As Frenchie and Jan, Landree Fleming and Tiffany T. Taylor are great. Michelle Lauto is absolutely superb as the flirtatious Marty, her cigarette always dangling just so. And Jacquelyne Jones’ formidable, wounded Rizzo is the show’s true star, so much so that you might wonder: What do we have to do to get a Rizzo-centric spinoff? It’s 2020. Expanded universes are in, baby!

But Nicholas struggles to make Danny more than a protagonist-by-default. “Grease” is one of those musicals that’s cursed by having been made into a near-perfect movie — one so popular that some of its changes, like the song “You’re the One That I Want,” have become canon. John Travolta had that perfect mix of sensitivity and lunkheadedness to capture Danny in all his hormonal glory. Danny’s not so much a bad boy with a heart of gold as an awkward, erratic pendulum that swings between nice guy and bad boy almost at random — but Travolta could get him into a rhythm. It’s a little unfair to all the subsequent actors who have had to (or will) tackle the part.

“Grease” is also a surprisingly intimate musical, a distinction that leaves the production poorly served by the Marriott Theatre’s in-the-round stage. It’s not a matter of blocking — Weinstein has that down pat — but a problem of space. There’s too much room in the room for the performers to fill.

Along with “Born to Hand Jive,” “Beauty School Dropout,” deliciously sung by Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, is one of the few numbers that manages the feat, with its uncut goofiness.

The problem’s not entirely the venue. Weinstein’s concept — which consists mostly of a hanging 1950s signs, a few raised platforms and one delightfully real motor vehicle, all courtesy of designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec — lacks cohesion. And, critically, it lacks the ’70s spirit that propels the show past pure nostalgia toward something more vital.

It’s the difference between playing the hits, a service this show performs quite adequately, and making an impact. In this “Grease,” the hits rarely land.

Alex Huntsberger is a freelance writer.

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