A month or two ago, The Chicago Reader previewed American Theater Co.’s restored version of Grease with a compelling profile of a rebellious troupe of young women from ‘50s and ‘60s Chicago. Dubbed The Pink Ladies, the group, to my surprise, happened to be a factual base for what would later be the renowned, lead pack of sexy chicks in the popular ‘70s-era musical.
And long before John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John immortalized two of theater’s most recognizable musical characters in Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski through a big blockbuster movie produced by Paramount Pictures, Grease – to my surprise, too! – had its world premiere right here in Chicago in 1971 (with, probably, a cast not so star-studded).
That show, which was set in Chicago, made many place and name references to the Windy City and, well, was a heck of a lot more vulgar than Broadway’s polished adaptation a year later, ran for an extended engagement at Kingston Mines Theatre.
About a week after The Pink Ladies profile, The Reader was just one of a number of publications in Chicago that bestowed a glowing review to the American Theater Co.’s raunchy revival.
So that was that. I had to see this show.
Before I get to the specifics, let me begin by saying that I watched The Original Grease with a shit-eating grin on my face. Here I was in an intimate, sold-out room of about 120 watching a version of Grease that, I think, hardly anyone has seen. That’s because once Grease shipped off to Broadway, future theatrical adaptations were, of course, lifted from the version of the show that people were familiar with. I mean, why adapt a little seen (comparatively) Chicago musical catered to the adult-only crowd when one can assemble a show built from the squeakier clean parts that made Grease, you know, the highest grossing movie musical of all time?
The Original Grease, then, is a total slice of history. And realizing renewed originality in a show you thought you already saw makes the ATC production an experience worth its price before the going even gets good.
The Original Grease opens at the 50-year reunion of Rydell High’s graduating class of 1960. Audience members are included in the festivities, too, but I won’t spoil the surprise here on what ATC does to break the fourth wall.
Following the alma mater and some school history, we swing back to the fall of 1959. School is back in session, and Danny and Sandy quickly come to learn they’re enrolled in the same high school after a summer of steady romantics. Familiar, yes? Much of the first act is, save for some music that never made it into the movie. (Or, in the case of, say, “Foster Beach,” which loosely resembles “Summer Nights,” tunes were amended for broader audience ears).
Act two, then, is when the game changing really happens. Not only is it bookended by a song deleted from Broadway – the titular “Grease” – but it’s packed with a good amount of unfamiliar storyline. Familiarity means nothing to me here, though. I liked that it was different.
The Original Grease, too, is hyper sexual — “the chicks’ll cream” in lieu of “the chicks’ll scream” in “Greased Lightning,” simulated orgasms at the end of “Born to Hand Jive,” artificial penises protruding from the boys’ pants that get tugged on incessantly by Rizzo and the other ladies, and so on — and comes littered with shit-bombs and other vulgarity. Don’t be like the untrained mom sitting in front of me who thought it a good idea to bring her preteens to the show.
Of the principal characters, Adrian Aguilar’s Danny Zuko was, unfortunately, my least favorite. He seemed the least macho of the Burger Palace boys, and I don’t know that the chemistry between he and Sandra Dee was very strong. Zuko just didn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the cast.
Shout outs, though, go to Patrick De Nicola, Jessica Diaz and, most particularly, Carol Rose, who play Sonny, Rizzo and Marty, respectively. Whether onstage with another actor or in an ensemble, Rose commanded my attention just about every time.
So I liked The Original Grease. A lot. I’ve hardly any unpleasantries. It’s a trip back to 1971 for the few who saw it at Kingston, or a totally new experience for audiences with any level of familiarity to Grease mainstream. Either way it’s a treat.
- The Original Grease plays through August 21. Tickets are available here.