"GREASE," through May 25, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East (801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org); running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — It might’ve worked for “beauty school dropout” Frenchy, but after seeing Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of the musical “Grease,” even a hilariously blunt and sparkly opera-singing Teen Angel couldn’t persuade me to go back to high school.
And that’s a compliment, because underneath the rollicking music and catchy cheers like “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!,” PTC put a surprisingly realistic touch (sparkly Teen Angel aside) on the well-known story that shows some of the most toxic parts of high school life — above all else, the ceaseless, pervasive peer pressure.
But for the record, even a well-done production can’t change the fact that the ending where Sandy wins back Danny by shedding her good girl persona for a cigarette, tight pants and a leather jacket is terrible. Good acting or not, it just will always be terrible.
Thanks to the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, the 1971 musical “Grease” that has seen two Broadway revivals since its original eight-year run continues to thrive. Last year marked the film’s 40th anniversary, and despite the musical’s stage life around the world, for better or worse, Travolta and Newton-John are the faces of “Grease.”
Which is why PTC’s production Monday night was so refreshing. Pascal Pastrana’s Danny Zuko was far removed from the smooth-talking Travolta. That disappointed me at first, but then I gradually realized how that was a good thing. For starters, unlike Travolta, Pastrana actually looked like a high-school student. His vocals weren’t the strongest, but he had excellent comedic timing that portrayed just the right combination of vulnerability and awkwardness — especially when quickly transitioning from unabashed excitement upon seeing Sandy for the first time since those “Summer Nights” to lowering his voice into cool indifference when remembering he’s surrounded by his friends.
On PTC’s stage, Danny’s group of friends — known as the Burger Palace Boys — were also far less intimidating than Travolta’s leather-clad group. They were gangly, more likeable and, at times, clumsy. Rather than exuding confidence, they seemed to be fighting for it with each misstep. And that is a true-to-high-school experience.
It should be noted that PTC’s production of “Grease” closely follows the storyline of the staged musical and not the film. As a result, we get wonderful songs including “Shakin’ at the High School Hop” and a true gem, “Mooning,” sung by Burger Palace Boy Roger — a character who is also left out of the film.
Based on Michael Schimmele’s portrayal of Roger last night, it’s a shame the character isn’t in the movie. Schimmele had irrepressible charisma and was a standout with his impressive soaring vocals on “Mooning.” Pink Lady and Roger’s love interest Jan, endearingly played by Kate Cassidy Ryan, was equally enjoyable to watch. In fact, the entire supporting cast of Burger Palace Boys and Pink Ladies was strong, and, at times, outshone the center stage struggles of Danny and Sandy.
Fans of the film “Grease” can still rejoice, though, as PTC also incorporated hit songs written specifically for the movie, including “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Emma Hearn’s Sandy, who looked the part and was a great match for her cinematic counterpart, Newton-John, had outstanding vocals and performed that latter song with vulnerability and heart, making it clear why the ballad was Grammy-nominated for best original song.
Hearn’s portrayal of the innocent schoolgirl Sandy was spot-on, hesitant and wide-eyed as she tried her first cigarette — Pink Ladies ringleader Rizzo’s (Alex Kidder) comment, “Try it, it ain’t gonna kill you,” got one of the loudest laughs of the night — but firm when Danny tries to go too far with her at the drive-in, telling him, “I’m still the same girl I was last summer.”
Which makes her complete 180 at the end all the more off-putting. Throughout both the musical and the film adaptation, Rizzo and the other Pink Ladies mock Sandy for her wholesome image, twirling around singing the song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” The song is primarily about the actress Dee, but it was another actress referenced in the second verse Monday night that really caught my attention: “Watch it, hey, I'm Doris Day/I was not brought up that way/Won't come across/Even Rock Hudson lost/His heart to Doris Day.”
Somehow, near the end of PTC’s “Grease,” watching Hearn’s Sandy sing “Goodbye to Sandra Dee” and detach herself from an image that draws a parallel to someone as legendary as Day seemed even more poignant on the very day the world lost Day.
It’d be slightly better if Sandy took on this new image because she wanted to, but her shocking action seems to stem more from her being “hopelessly devoted” to Danny than anything else. But as Sandy sings “Goodbye to Sandra Dee,” the only thing that’s clear is that Sandy is completely unclear on who she is: “Look at me, there has to be/Something more than what they see/Wholesome and pure/Oh so scared and unsure/A poor man's Sandra Dee.”
She doesn’t sing with confidence that there is more to her than what people see, but just that there has to be something more. In high school, that kind of unsurety and self-doubt surrounding image and identity is a harsh reality. By making the “Grease” characters more youthful, down-to-earth and, sometimes, downright awkward, PTC has succeeded in reminding us of something that often gets lost in the film's glamorization of “Grease” via Newton-John and Travolta: These are just high-schoolers. They're learning, transitioning and evolving.
All the same, I think I'll hold off on buying a plane ticket to my 10-year high school reunion.
Content advisory: PTC's production of “Grease” contains crude sex-related humor, language and gestures. Frequent teen partying, via the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies drinking and smoking, also takes place.