By PAM HARBAUGH
Sometimes it takes a solid production to realize just how lacking a show is. That’s the case with “Grease,” on stage now at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach.
Make no mistake: Riverside’s production is slick. It’s filled with sensational choreography, bright costumes and fun performances. As you do the stroll down memory lane, you’ll tap toes to musical numbers like “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightning,” “We Go Together” and “Born to Hand Jive.” If only there was an opportunity for more.
But, ironically, this good production reveals the meager libretto written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. “Grease” had its world premiere in 1971 in Chicago, and then had its “Broadway” debut a year later. I put that in quotes because that “Broadway” theater was the Eden Theatre on the Lower East Side’s Second Avenue. (It was the same off-Broadway theater where “Oh! Calcutta!” debuted in 1969.)
At the time, “Grease” was fresh and fun. I can say that because I actually saw it and was surprised to see that it starred one Barry Bostwick in the role of Danny Zuko. Surprised because, in the late ‘60s, yours truly once made a costume for Mr. Bostwick when we were students in the same theater department at a small San Diego college; and, like all the girls there I had a huge crush on the talented performer.
Then, the “Grease” nostalgic trip into 1950s teenage love was massive and sexy and daring. There was talk of “virgin pins” (still in the show, for a definition, ask your grandmom) and then, Saran Wrap was used as a prop to suggest contraception. In the early ‘70s, with all those hippies and free love, “Grease” exuded sexy innocence. We were happy to wait through those long pieces of dialogue, the gawky teens, dorky teachers, guys with D.A. haircuts and girls with super tight skirts.
For sure, the Riverside production, directed by Bruce Lumpkin, does serve up fun. Matthew Ragas exudes stage charisma as Danny Zuko, the bad guy “J.D.” Rydell High student who falls for girl-next-door Sandy, sung sweetly by petite Laura Giknis.
But Michelle Gaudette’s choreography is the star of this show. Ms. Gaudette covers the stage with big, bold movement and the most intricate, engaging and entertaining “Hand Jive” number this reviewer has ever seen.
Ken Clifton’s music direction and Lisa Zinni’s costume design are bright and fun.
Cliff Simon sets the stage with a couple of towering images of a young Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. On opening night, the second act opened with a couple of bizarre, pointy hanging scenic units obscuring top of the “backdrops.” They seemed to suggest old Cadillac fins or ICBMs, which were, after all, part of the 1950s Cold War culture. But instead of watching the show, you keep staring at them trying to discern if their intent is passive or evil .
Through the 42 years since its world premiere, “Grease” has become mostly the stuff of high school and community theaters, where one always murmurs a well-done or applauds wildly in gratitude of the lively musical numbers. But on a professional stage like Riverside, which has a well-deserved solid reputation for excellence, the ravages of time shows.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Grease” runs through May 4 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach. Tickets are $36 to $70. Call 772-231-6990 or visit www.riversidetheatre.com.