While American schoolchildren have been enjoying their summer holiday, American musicals have been stuck back in class. Hairspray and High School Musical, whose sequel has just debuted on television to eye-popping ratings, have shoved singing and dancing teens at us for the past two months, and now a revival of Grease on Broadway does the same.
Actually, Grease has never quite dropped out of view. It says a lot about how second-rate the show is that the most enjoyable productions I’ve seen have been put on by adolescents. High school versions may be amateurish, but at least we are not asked to believe that thirtysomething professional actors are reasonable facsimiles for 17-year-olds.
Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, who are the leads in the new revival and who were cast via a reality TV show, are only in their twenties, but what they gain in verisimilitude they lose in other areas.
Crumm is Danny Zuko, one of the slick-haired, too-cool-for-school hotshots at Rydell High in the 1950s. As long as he only has to fill out a pair of tight blue jeans and sing in harmony with his cronies, Crumm is passably enjoyable. But when his solo, “Sandy”, arrives, his voice is so weak that you cannot believe that even a gullible television audience could ever have voted him into the role.
By contrast, Osnes’s voice has both power and accurate pitch. Facially, she resembles Keira Knightley. Bodily, she has the figure of a 13-year-old, which should mean that her transformation at evening’s end from virginal Sandy to vixenish Sandy should be dramatic. Unfortunately, there are some miracles that even a WonderBra cannot perform.
To make things worse, the costumer Martin Pakledinaz, whose work is generally delightful, puts sexy Sandy in unflattering tight trousers. The garment reminds us how much better was the wardrobe of Olivia Newton-John, in the 1978 movie, at balancing the character’s sensuality with her sweetness.
Kathleen Marshall, who directed, keeps the actors in motion quite well. Her choreography, however, can only do so much to camouflage the fact that Crumm is no more than a passable hoofer. When his Danny is awarded top prize at a Rydell High dance contest, you want to cry foul because the chorus boy portraying his competition moves so much better.