'Grease' gives audience a night of good, slick fun

February 19, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The musical "Grease" has always had a cartoony feel, so the team behind the Broadway-bound revival at Washington's National Theatre made a logical choice in turning it into an exaggerated theatrical cartoon.

In our first view of the fictitious Rydell High class of 1957, the actors' faces look out through holes in a huge black-and-white cartoon of a graduation class portrait. In subsequent scenes, a school bus is represented by students carrying two-dimensional yellow panels with cut-outs for the bus windows, and the cafeteria line is depicted by two actors standing in front of a cartoon of their tray-toting classmates.

Despite the fact that "Grease" is one of the longest-running shows inBroadway history, the show was never more than a fun night out, teeny-bopper style (with all due respect to former Baltimoreans Kenneth Waissman and Maxine Fox, who drew on some of their Forest Park High School memories to help create the 1972 original, which they produced).

The idea behind the revival seems to have been to take the fun one step further and transform it into camp. And, with the exception of a few scenes in which the gimmicks seem exceedingly forced -- in particular, the dance numbers with spare tires and hula hoops as props -- most of this "Grease" is slick.

The revival is billed as "The Tommy Tune Production of Grease," although direction and choreography is credited to Jeff Calhoun. Tune "supervised" the production, according to an article in the program. Whoever was in charge, much credit for the show's inspired silliness must go to designers John Arnone (sets), Willa Kim (costumes) and especially Patrik D. Moreton (hair).

The peak of that inspiration comes in the "Beauty School Dropout" number, in which a Teen Angel counsels a drop-out to return to high school. Instead of the usual Bobby Rydell-style pop idol, this Teen Angel is a black soul singer; after all, what's an angel without soul? And, Billy Porter's Angel is as outrageous as his 2-foot high, yellow plastic pompadour. (He calls it "Hair by Dairy Queen.")

The cast is headed by Rosie O'Donnell, who seems to be having a ball playing tough-talking Rizzo, although she talks her way through some of her songs. The best voice on stage belongs to Susan Wood as Rizzo's goody-goody nemesis, Sandy Dumbrowski.

Ricky Paull Goldin is comically and vocally adept as Sandy's greaser beau, Danny Zuko. And Marcia Lewis marvelously loopy as the kids' English teacher, chiding the audience as well as her students for as gum-chewing and lateness.

Before the show begins, deejay Vince Fontaine, played with lounge-lizard sliminess by Brian Bradley, works the crowd, cajoling theatergoers to dance and awarding them prizes. On the night I was there, however, the crowd didn't need a warm-up. The kids in the balcony were so enthusiastic, they could make a living supplying laugh- and applause-tracks for TV sitcoms.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Grease"

Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and March 7; 7 p.m. Sundays; matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and March 9. Through March 12

Tickets: $32.50-$55

Call: (202) 628-6161

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