I’ve Got Chills, They’re Stultifying

From left, Matthew Saldivar as Kenickie, Jenny Powers as Rizzo, Laura Osnes as Sandy, and Max Crumm as Danny.Photo: Amy Arbus

The night begins with clapping and squeals—actual squeals—as the curtain goes up. There’s another eruption as the curtain comes down. For two hours or so in between, there’s Grease, though hardly anybody seems to mind. I can’t remember a Broadway production where the actual show had less to do with the experience that people came to the theater to have. Partly this is because Grease barely qualifies as a Broadway musical in the first place. Combining a dud book with songs that somehow manage to be even duller, it’s really three or four good tunes amid immense stretches of dead air—and, for this production, a curtain call that makes the rest of it seem trivial.

A funny kind of switcheroo happened on the road to Broadway. By using a TV program to cast the show’s leads, the producers have made the show feel like an adjunct of the TV program, like a season-finale-plus-one. Where the casting process itself was concerned, devotion to duty saw me through only the first episode, so I don’t have much sense of the field. But what has reached the stage of the Brooks Atkinson reminds me a lot of that moment in presidential politics when you watch the party nominee take the stage at the convention and think: Him?

As Danny, young Max Crumm shows some talent—a decent voice, nice charisma. But Crumm and his friends are plausible as bad kids only until the school’s actual bad kids return to stuff them back in their lockers. Laura Osnes shows even more promise as Sandy—the girl can flat-out sing—but she takes the goody-goody girlish thing too far. Even in the finale, after Sandy’s theoretical transformation to slinky sex kitten, she makes Natalie Portman look grizzled.

Casting a musical is a dodgy business, so you can’t really blame the voters for making uninteresting choices (though it’s a little chilling to see that the collective acuity of the American people doesn’t surpass the average Broadway producer’s). In fact, their selections deserve better treatment than they’ve gotten from the facilitators of this experiment in democracy. A boy-meets-girl story set in a sock-hop-era high school is never going to be Lohengrin, but the creative team should at least be shooting for Spring Awakening. Instead, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall does little to combat the blandness of so much of this material, and makes some of it worse. Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey padded out their story with a huge amount of subplotting, and Marshall allows it to unspool like an Altman movie, as if there’s all the time in the world.

When Marshall does have a good song to work with, the results tend to be flat. “You’re the One That I Want” is a fiendishly catchy song, a terrific way to close a show, but it lands with a thud. Only “Grease,” the propulsive opening number (and sole contribution of Barry Gibb, Bee Gees fans will be glad to know) really takes off. The song’s seventies aura is out of whack with the fifties setting of the show (it was written for the 1978 film), but its woozy, vaguely dangerous vibe made me think, however briefly, that the evening might add up to something.

And it does, eventually. During the curtain call, the cast races through quick reprises of all the show’s good songs (including “Greased Lightning,” Broadway’s answer to a stadium-rock anthem), and gives the Max-and-Laura constituency plenty of chances to see the stars in action. Here, you think, is what the people came to see: the super-concentrated Grease experience, all highlights and TV stars, with none of the dull bits to get in the way. It’s just a shame that, after casting their votes and paying a hundred bucks for tickets, they still have to wait two listless hours to get it.

If we were talking about music or Web video, this would be easy: Two musicals, unsatisfying in their current forms, need only to be mashed up, and both might thrive. At Primary Stages, Michael Hollinger’s Opus tells an involving story about a string quartet’s imploding, like a highbrow Fleetwood Mac. The show is hobbled, alas, by the fact that the actors aren’t playing their instruments: They’re faking it to a recording. (The contrived last scene, which erases most of the subtle drama that’s preceded it, doesn’t help.) Meanwhile, in the East Village, Grant James Varjas’s 33 to Nothing tells no story to speak of—well, a bland, self-involved one, also about a band’s breakup—but gets plenty exciting whenever the cast of five stops talking and starts banging out remarkably good rock on their guitars, drums, and keyboards.

Why do we go on thinking it’s okay to watch actors pretend to be musicians, particularly after John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd? Beethoven may be tougher to play than Sondheim, but I’d give up a little musicianship if it meant watching a true performance instead of canned instrument-syncing. Conversely, why didn’t anybody sit Varjas down and tell him his music deserved better than his libretto? He’s making a case for rock music as theater music, but nobody’s going to believe it when it’s yoked to a story like that. Pro Tools wizards, take it away.

In its two previous Broadway incarnations, Grease became distinguished in two important ways: longevity and also-ran status. The original production opened in 1972, buoyed by the first wave of fifties nostalgia, and closed eight years later as the longest-running show in Broadway history. It was also nominated for seven Tonys and won zero—the exact number won by the 1994 revival (three noms), which lasted almost four years. Neither production contained (or generated) much star power, with the notable exception of 1994’s show-stealing Rizzo, Rosie O’Donnell, who got her talk show two years later.

Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Open run.

By Michael Hollinger at Primary Stages

33 to Nothing
By Grant James Varjas at the Wild Project

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.

I’ve Got Chills, They’re Stultifying