Drury Lane’s ‘Grease’ is just the ticket for hopelessly devoted fans

The cast and production values couldn’t be better. But a script that’s aged badly and lack of character depth doesn’t make for great storytelling despite superb choreography, killer vocals and compelling visuals.

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Jake DiMaggio-Lopez and Emily Schultheis starring as Danny and Sandy in “Grease” at the Drury Lane Theatre.

Jake DiMaggio-Lopez and Emily Schultheis starring as Danny and Sandy in “Grease” at the Drury Lane Theatre.

Brett Beiner Photography

When the 1959-set musical “Grease” debuted in a classically gritty Off-Loop theater in 1971, it marked the birth of what would become (pre-“Phantom of the Opera”) the longest-running musical on Broadway.

The show’s creators Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey (they cowrote the music, lyrics and book) based their scrappy, gleefully raunchy high school musical on their own experiences as high-schoolers on the North Side.

Directed by Paul Stancato at Oakbrook Terrace’s Drury Lane Theatre, “Grease” follows the senior-year shenanigans of Rydell High’s pre-eminent cliques: the Pink Ladies and the Burger Palace Boys. The paper-thin plot centers on wholesome transfer student Sandy Dumbrowski (Emily Schultheis) and her summer love, bad boy Danny Zuko (Jake DiMaggio Lopez).

‘Grease’

Untitled

Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace

When: Through June 4

Tickets: $85.75-$96.25

Run time: 2 hours, including one intermission

Info: drurylanetheatre.com

The cast and the production values at Drury Lane couldn’t be better. But a script that’s aged badly and a lack of character depth doesn’t make for great storytelling despite superb choreography, killer vocals and vividly compelling visuals.

The arc of the story is more of a blip as it follows Sandy’s transition from wholesome to sexpot, ditching her identity as a Sandra Dee-type and becoming a latex-clad pinup whose change of outfit convinces Danny that she’s the one that he wants. It’s yet another show in which the female characters are tired tropes: virgins or vixens, with nary a nuance in sight.

While Sandy, at least initially, is the awkward, unsure girl who doesn’t drink, swear or rat her hair, Pink Lady Betty Rizzo (Alina Taber) is the queen of cool, her tempestuous relationship with Kenickie (Billy Rude) providing a hormonal soap opera that spills from one semester to the next.

The score is indelible, from the ear-wormy title tune on. The cast is crackerjack. The orchestra (conducted by Michael McBride) knows its business. And the budget allows for an ensemble big enough to fill a cafeteria, a catwalk’s worth of eye-popping 1950s fashions and an astounding rendition of Kenickie’s iconic car, Greased Lightning.

Among the other denizens of Rydell High’s Class of ’59 are Frenchie (Ciarra Stroud), the beauty school dropout, and snack-happy Jan (Elizabeth Stenholt), who is defined primarily by the fact that we rarely see her when she’s not eating.

Despite the aforementioned not insignificant drawbacks, Stancato’s production is a hoot. As Rizzo, Taber knocks the power ballad “There are Worse Things I Could Do” soaring beyond the chandeliers, delivering the tune’s defiance, heartbreak and pure teen emo with a showstopping belt.

When Lopez’s Danny Zuko soulfully wails about being “stranded at the drive-in and branded a fool,” the James Dean posturing falls away, and we see the vulnerable kid beneath the outsized swagger.

Rude’s Kenickie powers through the vehicular-themed “Greased Lightning” with hip-swiveling, Elvis-like charisma.

As Sandy, Schultheis captures the stuff of teen-diary dreams in the swoony “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

Kyra Leigh finds comic gold as Miss Lynch, the one grownup we see at Rydell High — part one-woman pep rally, part disciplinarian and clearly an older version of Patty Simcox (Olive Belfie), a classic teen overachiever whose relentlessly upbeat school spirit is second to none.

Stancato’s choreography is fabulous throughout, whether he has the cast cavorting atop Kenickie’s vintage car or exploding through the hand jive at the high school hop. When rival school student Cha-Cha Digregorio (Emily Scinto) goes into her namesake dance, she’s a breathtaking dervish of percussive sensuality. And while his stage time is limited to a single scene, Evan Tyrone Martin’s super-suave Teen Angel has a croon as smooth as brushed velvet.

Jeff Kmiec’s expansive set is framed with vintage advertisements, all the better to show off costume designer Rachel Boylan’s intricately detailed array of pouf-fy A-line skirts and voluminous petticoats. The tailoring is precise throughout — the Burger Palace boys’ denim and leather highlights the gorgeous lines of Stancato’s choreography; the Pink Ladies’ dance frocks whirling like a kaleidoscope of rainbows in “Shakin’ at the High School Hop.”

There’s more nostalgia and style than story or substance in this production of “Grease.” But it’s rarely looked or sounded better.

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