The April 28 Reader featured Cynthia Gallaher’s story about the Pink Ladies, a club started in the mid-1950s by northwest-side Catholic girls who were either going to Taft High School or knew somebody who was. Jim Jacobs went to Taft, too, and when he and Warren Casey were writing their 1971 paean to pomade, Grease, they named its girl gang the “Pink Ladies.” The club’s alumnae have apparently been struggling with the fallout ever since. It’s not easy having your adolescence co-opted into what turned out to be one of America’s best-known musicals.
According to Gallaher, some of the real Pink Ladies complain that their fictional counterparts are tougher and more sexually knowing than they ever were. Well, in American Theater Company’s entertaining revival—called The Original Grease, but actually a remix from various sources—the girls smoke, swear, and sneak alcohol all right. But the alcohol they sneak is tawny port, and they do it at a slumber party. For the most part, these kids are bad in the tamest possible ways.
And the same goes for their male counterparts, the Burger Palace Boys, who talk a lot about vandalism (“Let’s go to the playground and shit on the swings”), rumbling, and getting matching switchblade tattoos, but commit precious little genuine mayhem.
This is a tale, after all, about the tender hearts beating beneath those shiny leather jackets. As you no doubt already know, the action starts in September, with head BPB Danny Zuko having just come down off a sweet summer romance with Sandy Dumbrowski, a girl he met at Foster Beach. Now she’s turned up as a new transfer student at his school, Rydell High. And she’s so, so . . . wholesome.
Danny has already lied to his buddies about how far he got with Sandy, and her straitlaced presence puts his street cred in jeopardy. So he does what any status-conscious, socially inept teen would do—he freezes her out. The once and future couple spend the rest of the show literally dancing around each other, trying to figure out this thing called love.
The only Pink Lady with a real chance of going wrong is the club’s leader, Rizzo. Truly wised-up—and pissed off, too, for reasons that are never explored—she’s a reckless party girl, upping antes every chance she gets.
But even Rizzo learns the error of her ways. The only character who may be a true villain here is Zuko’s lieutenant, Kenickie. Sure, he’s portrayed as a simple, rather soulful loser whose two great loves—Rizzo and the crummy old hot rod he calls Greased Lightning—never live up to his fantasies. At two points in the show, however, he strong-arms Sandy into going off alone with him: once, into the woods, and the other time to the laundry room in a friend’s basement.
As staged by PJ Paparelli, there’s definitely coercion involved. Tony Clarno’s Kenickie has his arm around Sandy’s neck in what could easily become a choke hold, and she’s reluctant if not exactly resistant. What does it mean? Is Kenickie a rapist? Or is this supposed to be taken as a form of prefeminist courtship, consistent with the times? (And is there a difference?) Can’t say for sure. There’s no follow-up, no consequence. Like the source of Rizzo’s anger, the trips to the woods and the laundry room are presented as faits accomplis. They just are.
One possible solution is that Sandy is trying to use Kenickie to make Zuko jealous, and the scenes come out looking more sinister than they should because they’re clumsily played. Oddly enough, that’s fairly likely. Kelly Davis Wilson’s Sandy is frustratingly vague throughout. I never understood what made her act like such a prig, how she seemed to maintain a friendship with the Pink Ladies in spite of her priggishness, or, really, why anybody liked her at all.
These are questions limited to Sandy, though. The rest of Paparelli’s large cast are delightful. Jessica Diaz is a sexy, sharp Rizzo who kicks her superficially silly solo, “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee,” into a fascinatingly dark place. Rob Colletti and Sadieh Rifai have a charming bit when, as the two fat kids of the group, they finally give in to liking each other. Rifai, in particular, manifests an I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself energy that’s hilariously weird and very apt. Tyler Ravelson is simply fun to watch as goofy budding cartoonist Miller. I could go on through the rest of the Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys to the supporting roles. For a musical with some very creepy implications, The Original Grease is an awful lot of fun.