It’s best to leave any thoughts of Travolta and Newton-John at home because the Studio 58 production of Grease is “the original” as it was meant to be seen, before being sanitized by Hollywood.
This is definitely a less wholesome version and while these kids of Rydell High connect solidly with its emotional core, it is also a reminder that Vancouver’s first-class acting school is not a training ground for musical theatre; the result is a production that is as rough at times as Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s book.
For anyone that has seen the movie the basic plot remains intact, but in this version the guys and gals of Rydell aren’t afraid of a little thievery, flipping you the bird or dropping the f-bomb at every opportunity. Gone is the 1950s that popular culture has fed us with an illusion of a kinder and gentler time, full of visits to Arnold’s or even cruising the strip looking for a beautiful blonde in a T-bird.
Here Jacobs and Casey are more interested in a grittier reality and spending time focused on the sexual awakening of a group of Chicago kids in 1959 who are not only about to enter the real world outside of high school, but who are on the threshold of the Swinging Sixties.
To help illustrate the sexual awakenings, director Peter Jorgensen ups the ante by introducing what may very well be Grease’s first non-heterosexual character (you’ll have to make up your own mind whether this particular member of the Burger Palace Boys is gay or bisexual). While Jorgensen does play this character’s sexuality for laughs at times, if you watch closely you’ll see a teen grappling with discovery.
This character’s sexual discovery underscores the truth that these young actors are able to find, but while they are able to connect emotionally with their characters, it is a musical, and with a couple of exceptions this cast is not always up to the challenge. Highlights include Erik Gow as Doody and Chirag Naik as Roger although in the case of Naik it was such a shameto waste such a great voice on the ridiculous “Mooning”. Lauren Jackson also does a nice job as Sandy, although she finds her biggest strength, like most of this cast, in her acting.
Not helping on the musical front is the decision to not amplify the sound. While it could be argued that microphones would only emphasize the roughness of some of this cast’s vocal abilities, the rock and roll inspired music cries out for amplification. Whether by design or because of cost, the rafters of the tiny Studio 58 theatre space should have been reverberating with sound.
Omanie Elias’s set design, made up of series of moveable black and white school yearbooks, is surprisingly lifeless and while its flexibility meant for some very quick scene transitions, it was crying out for colour. Jessica Bayntum’s costumes helped somewhat against the drab background, but even they couldn’t overcome the monochromatic palette.
As a diehard Greaser I appreciated the opportunity to visit Rydell High the way it was meant to be, but while the cast easily deals with the emotional context of the show, in a musical that can only get you so far.
Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Directed by Peter Jorgensen. On stage at Langara College Studio 58 through February 23, 2014. Visit http://studio58.ca for tickets and information.