It's probably too much to hope that the once-quaint rock & roll musical Grease could retain its original innocence. In the years since 1972, when this sassy celebration of the 1950s became an unlikely Broadway hit, it has endured more alterations than a modern-dress Hamlet. So it's no surprise that Stages St. Louis, which is not known for serving its musicals straight up, would want to retool this one too.
The current Stages Grease begins intriguingly enough. The ingenious scenic design by Mark Halpin is built around a jukebox motif. Wherever you look, old vinyl 45s are on display. The set is so clever, for just a moment you might fancy that, like Aladdin on his flying carpet, we're all going to be transported back to the '50s on a swirling turntable and the show is actually going to play out inside a jukebox. This notion is given credence when the production junks the original opening (a lame flashback sequence that never works anyway) and introduces radio DJ Vince Fontaine (Steve Isom) spinning records. Adding the glib radio jock at the outset hints that Fontaine might become the evening's conscience, akin to the soulful Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti.
But all these notions remain mere notions. Although the folks who cobble shows together at Stages never lack for fresh "takes" on the material, they're weak on follow-through. They reject the premise that one good idea developed is better than three brilliant ideas sketched. Nevertheless, the new opening even with its "rumble" that seems more worthy of Sharks and Jets than the kids at Rydell High offers promise.
But then comes a succession of songs that are songs no more. Each has been refashioned as an extravagant production number more overloaded and unwieldy than the one that preceded it. It's rather charming to rethink "Those Magic Changes" as a dream sequence. But once you've done that, how do you handle "Greased Lightnin'," which was conceived to be a dream sequence? Now it has to become something quite detached from its original purpose. By the time we get to the numbingly overproduced "Beauty School Dropout," the sweet simplicity of Grease-as-originally-intended has been demolished. In football you get penalized for piling on; in theater you get standing ovations.
It might be that much of this muddle is to be blamed on Tommy Tune, who supervised the 1994 revival. Tune is no stranger to the "anything worth doing is worth overdoing" approach to musicals. His revival, for instance, added the Straight A's, a singing quartet that seems to be a direct steal from Forever Plaid. Maybe they worked in the revival; here they're so loud that you have a hard time hearing the lead characters the quartet is supposed to be backing up.
By evening's end the young, spirited cast gets pretty much lost among all this overload as does the story line they're trying to tell. Some of the performers are able to hold their own; others have been steered to caricature and stereotype. There's a tendency at Stages to direction-by-watching-the-movie. Perhaps that's why, as the naive Sandy, the fetching Hollie Howard seems so modeled after Olivia Newton-John, you half expect her to speak with an Australian accent. Derek Keeling does well enough as the John Travolta stand-in. But there's a sense that he doesn't feel free to cut loose and create his own Danny Zuko. To that end, if all the actors were allowed to move the scenes along naturally rather than constantly holding for laughs that often don't come, there'd be a much keener sense of life on the stage. But this evening of live theater isn't about life; it's a paean to excess which perhaps explains why a Grease that should be waxing nostalgic instead finds itself stuck in a groove and spinning out of control.