By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Let’s pretend for a moment Grease, receiving a mainstage airing-out at Walnut Street Theatre, isn’t about slut-shaming and prude-shaming or the days when bullies were the cool kids. We can celebrate an era when we had the freedom to mock “polacks” “japs” and “pansies” at will, but didn’t have to acknowledge African-Americans because they were still invisible. We might even be okay with all that if director Bruce Lumpkin allowed this 1971 musical to take its original form: a hand jive at America’s best-beloved 1950s myths presented by a bunch of working-class teenage scrappers all grappling for the bottom rungs of the same (gender-specific) ladders.
Instead, we’re presented with Cliff Simon’s set, featuring enormous flats painted with Liz Taylor’s face--all hair, lips and half-opened eyes--looming large on the left, James Dean famously pouting on the right, “Rydell,” the name of the kids’ high school, on scaffolding between them like a local version of the iconic Hollywood sign. The Walnut’s production is an homage, a blend of songs from Grease’s Broadway debut and the 1978 film, featuring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (to which, for the record, I’m still hopelessly devoted), and as such, rings untrue nearly throughout, albeit with some great dance numbers.
Matthew Ragas’ greaser king Danny Zuko remains as two-dimensional as those flats. Laura Giknis’ virgin princess Sandy Dombrowski, despite rafter-ringing vocal skills, flatlines until her jarring final-scene transformation into whatever it is a depressed innocent who gets a black leather-pantsed, hair-teased makeover suddenly becomes.
Far more interesting (and frustrating, for their glimmers of what might have been) are the relationships between the Pink Ladies and their T-Birds. As the best of this second tier high school royalty, Kate Fahrner’s Betty Rizzo, Michael Warrell’s Kenickie Lilly Tobin’s Frenchy, Tara Tagliaferro’s Jan and Rachel Camp’s Marty all try harder, at loving, at fighting, at delinquency. Their pains and pleasures have degrees, and their small successes, particularly Rizzo’s dignity-saving “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” even without the benefit of Sandy’s character development, matter.
Of course, all those dance numbers and Michelle Gaudette’s choreography electrify, whether the T-Birds are doing push-ups to “Greased Lightning” or swinging their partners at the hop. It’s so much fun that if you’re inclined, you can keep pretending the Walnut’s whitewash nailed the spirit of the thing, but there’s no denying this production is missing its soul.
Playing at: Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Through Sunday, July 14. Tickets: $10 to $95. Information: 800-982-2787 or www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org.