Everyone has that missing piece of pop culture that surprises other people. The one that makes them ask, “What, you haven’t seen that?,” even though you just told them that, indeed, you haven’t seen that.
For me, one of those things was the movie Grease. I get that it’s the most popular movie musical of all time. And yeah, having grown up in the ’80s, I knew all the words to “You’re the One That I Want” and “Summer Nights.” I even have a particular fondness for early John Travolta movies (particularly his unforgettable lead role in Brian DePalma’s Blow Out, four years after Grease).
So I don’t know why I avoided Grease for my entire life, but when I admitted that to fans of the movie, they would usually tell me something like, “You have to see it! It’s funny, and the music is great!”
Well, last week I saw Cabrillo Stage’s version of the musical on which the movie is based, and I’m here to tell you … you have to see it! It’s funny, and the music is great!
No, seriously, I’m all in now, and my longtime resistance seems a little ridiculous. Maybe part of it was feeling there was a dated quality I wasn’t going to like, plus I had read that it was pretty crassly sexist. I can attest that Cabrillo Stage’s version has fixed the most problematic lyrics—it was appropriate for my 12-year-old, who loved it—and having since listened to the cast albums from different versions of the Broadway musical (which first opened in 1971), it’s clear that the 2007 update paved the way for this more enlightened take.
I also finally checked out the movie, and while it’s pretty awesome—and no one has ever looked better in a black t-shirt than Travolta does in it—there’s actually one scene I think Cabrillo Stage does better: Jennifer Taylor Daniels as the Teen Angel delivers a hilarious version of “Beauty School Dropout” that crushes even Frankie Avalon’s film take.
I like how director and choreographer Cassie Nordgren has conceptualized her production; there’s a dreamy quality to the whole thing that’s in sharp contrast to the stark, saturated colors of the film. The way she has incorporated the live band and DJ Vince Fontaine above the stage is brilliant, and David Jackson as Vince is note-perfect. The cast as a whole is excellent, in fact, especially Peyton Turowski as Rizzo—all the Pink Ladies are a blast—Scott Boynton as Kenickie, Ella Curie as a gender-switched Sonny and Haley Clarke, who really comes through in what is sometimes a thankless role as good-girl Sandy. At first, I wasn’t totally buying Jack Bloome as arrogant-but-secretly-sweet Danny—probably because even those of us who didn’t see Grease associate the role indelibly with Travolta—but wow, when he got his showcase moment in “Alone at a Drive-In Movie” (a song which is handled much differently, and better, in the musical than it is in the movie), he knocked it out of the park. He let the character’s hidden goofiness and vulnerability show through, and I was sold.
I’ve only got two criticisms of this production: first, some of the ensemble action could be further downstage, closer to the audience—when we get up-close moments with this cast, we can’t help but love them. Second, the closing “You’re the One That I Want” feels a bit tacked on. Written for the movie, it wasn’t in the original musical, but I understand that fans of the film will expect it. Still, we all know “We Go Together” is the only way to end Grease.
See? Spoken like a true fan.
Cabrillo Stage’s ‘Grease’ runs through July 10 at the Crocker Theater at Cabrillo College in Aptos. Times and tickets at cabrillostage.com.