Friday, September 4, 2015

Review: Grease

Grease, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, produced by the Walnut Street Theatre, directed by Bruce Lumpkin.

Review: Grease


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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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