At first glance, the musical Grease is a happy-go-lucky look at teenage life, with great songs and some rousing dance numbers, and there are plenty of both in the Show Palace Dinner Theatre production playing through May 22.
Look deeper, though, and the show is more what it started out to be in a 1971 Chicago nightclub: a send-up of the raunchy world of young hoodlums — the T-Birds and sexually promiscuous girls, the Pink Ladies — and a put-down of the goody two-shoes world of cheerleaders, athletes and study hall nerds, with the hoods and floozies winning, for the time being anyway.
Or, as up-tight English teacher Miss Lynch (Mary Ann Edwards) admonishes, "If you can't be an athlete, be an athletic supporter."
It starts at a reunion of the Class of 1959 at Rydell High School many years after graduation, when nerdy class valedictorian Eugene Florczyk (Caleb Brening) has risen nearly to the top in the business world and the hoods and floozies are there "in spirit only," implying they came to no good ends.
It segues back to senior year, when the T-Birds and Pink Ladies ruled, and making out was more important than making good. The new girl, a perky, squeaky-nice Sandy Dumbrowski (Molly Anne Ross) has just had a summer romance with the leader of the T-Birds, Danny Zuko (Hunter Brown). The Pink Ladies seem to welcome Sandy (behind her back, they make fun of her), and want to know more about the romance, which Sandy describes as chaste. The T-Birds push Danny for more, which he describes as lusty (Summer Nights).
What follows are hookups, put-downs, romance, sex and a quickly resolved threat of gang violence, with stories of the ambitions, values and emotions of each of the Rydell High kids. Aspiring rock star Doody (a rockin' Jordan Wolfe) gets to show off his music chops (Those Magic Changes) and point out the repetitive simplicity of doo-wop at the same time. Man-hungry Marty (a gorgeous Christie Rohr) sings about her faraway boyfriend, Freddy, My Love, but falls for the smarmy, aging local DJ Vince Fontaine (Jared E. Walker).
In a departure from the usual bad-girl-goes-good, the tough, libidinous Betty Rizzo (Katherine Walker Hill) defends her life choices (There Are Worse Things I Could Do), vowing not to be a tease, or to trap hot-to-trot Kenickie (Stephen Antonelli) into marriage. And smooth crooner Timothe Bittle arrives in the form of the Teen Angel to advise school dropout Frenchy (Alexus Nagy) to go back to school (Beauty School Dropout), which she doesn't.
The heart of the show, though, is Ross, whose big, soaring voice belies her tiny frame. Whether it's Sandy's sad Hopelessly Devoted to You or her high-energy You're the One That I Want, Ross's sound is clear and strong. This, despite some accompaniment that often drowns out the singers at the most inopportune times.
Jeff Weber's set design is mostly spare, with the exception of one eye-popping set piece, Kenickie's rusted-out junker, Greased Lightnin'. Director/choreographer Jill Godfrey and assistant choreographer Alyssa Elrod (who also plays dance contest winner ChaCha DeGregorio) put together some terrific dances to We Go Together, Shakin' at the High School Hop, Born to Hand Jive and You're the One That I Want, to name a few.
The 1950s feel is enhanced during scene changes by snippets of familiar tunes of that time: I'm Walkin'; Sixteen Candles; Wake Up Little Susie; At the Hop; Earth Angel; Do You Want to Dance; Bye Bye Love; Shimmy, Shimmy Ko-Ko-Bop; There Goes My Baby, and the song that many say started it all, the late Bobby Charles' See You Later, Alligator.
Grease doesn't have, or need, a strong, linear story, but merely the suggestion of a favorite cliche, with a wink-and-a-nod twist: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl makes a complete transformation from good girl to naughty girl, boy gets girl. It's all about the music, the mood and the eye-poking fun.