Editorial Review

Olney Theatre’s flashing the ‘Grease’ lightning

By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011

The musical "Grease" - as it has evolved since its gritty 1971 beginnings through Broadway success, tons of tours and cleaned-up school versions - is so loopy with energy that it can't think straight. "We go together like ramma ramma lamma ka ding-a da ding-a dong," goes a typically hormone-addled lyric. At the Olney Theatre Center, director Bobby Smith keeps the stage wide open so the show's revved-up characters can move, and the actors pop like popcorn in the ebullient late-1950s choreography.

So it's a lively production and fairly fun, if somehow you need to see "Grease" again. Robert Klingelhoefer's bubbly blue set looks like the studio for a teen dance TV show, with twin arcing staircases framing a big floor. Choreographer Ilona Kessell grabs her chance; she keeps the capable cast dancing in big swaggering groups, with the high school toughs and goofs erupting in acrobatics and lewd thrusts.

Eye-catching as this is, the musical numbers (which include songs added for the 1978 film) don't quite envelop you. The familiar melodies tiptoe in, rather than declaring themselves; there isn't much punch in the five-piece ensemble playing this retro-pop score. The amplification was gratingly loud in the Olney's "Annie" last winter, but between music director Aaron Broderick and sound designer GW Rodriguez, the tunes are somehow undercooked here.

That's too bad, because this cast seems ready to let things rip - especially Caroline Bowman as bad girl Betty Rizzo. Bowman drips with disdain as the head of the Pink Ladies, ridiculing the square heroine Sandy and smugly belting "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." The production gets a bit maudlin when it looks like Rizzo's In Trouble, but that's not Bowman's fault. Like much of the cast, she's doing zesty work.

As the bickering lovebirds Sandy and Danny, Jessica Lauren Ball and David Bryant Johnson look like cousins of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta (stars of the movie version). Ball and Johnson don't have original ideas about these characters, but they're appealing and very easy with the song and dance. Dan Van Why earns grins as Roger (the moon king), Maria Rizzo spins out brassy lines as the flirty Marty, and Ashleigh King is cocky and tacky as Cha-Cha Di Gregorio.

What you dread with "Grease" is cartoonishness, but Smith keeps a sweet tone amid all the gruff posturing, and the performers steer clear of camp, even if they can't avoid the corn. (Interestingly, Jim Jacobs, who wrote the musical with Warren Casey, recently restored the show to its apparently humbler and more authentic original form for a run in its home town, Chicago.)

Most alluring here is the dancing, with supporting players such as Kyle Schliefer (as the nerd Eugene), Parker Drown (Sonny, one of Danny's sidekicks), Bowman and more taking to the music like pent-up kids at a sock hop. As with "Annie," you can't help scanning the stage and being intrigued by the talent.