Flashy Fifties Fun In MNM’s ‘Grease’
It’s good to see MNM Theatre Company back in business. Now having moved from its former location at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse and set up shop at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, the company makes a priority of casting Florida-based actors in its high quality productions, a welcome policy when some of the other bigger and flashier companies in the area are wont to bring in out of towners.
But MNM’s consistently high production values have actually lent them an aura of being plenty flashy themselves, and their first live production since COVID hit is no exception. Their Grease is filled with plenty of great performances and a whole lotta good fun, though perhaps not so much good fun as to entirely drown out my contrarianism when it comes to preferring newer or at least more substantial work to revivals of well-worn feel-good musical comedies.
Which is what makes it particularly interesting to note that this cheerful family classic (I noticed several families with small children in the audience) actually gained attention for being raunchy and raw in its original production. Later versions, though, significantly sanitized the script, though there are still enough references to sex, drugs (well, at least wine), and rock and roll that it retains some heat from that initial flame.
As seems to be the convention of casting when it comes to this classic, most of the performers looked noticeably older than their teenage characters, though I won’t go so far as to single out any specific actors. Written in the early 1970s and taking place in 1959, the script certainly shows its age as well, particularly in the rape-y vibes of lyrics like “Did she put up a fight” and some other unfortunate remarks by supposedly likable male characters.
I am, like most, familiar with much of the show’s music and with the movie, though I haven’t actually watched it in so long that it’s barely more than a scant memory. So, while the fated romance between greaser bad boy Danny and sweet and innocent Sandy is the thing that I remembered being at the center of Grease and is indeed its most prominent throughline, it surprised me somewhat to be reminded in this stage production how much of an ensemble piece it really is.
While I enjoyed the fact that this meant that most members of the talented company got a few memorable moments to shine, it also seemed to emphasize the plot’s flimsiness, and the meanderingness of it all was somewhat wearing despite the tuneful music and charismatic cast.
In the lead roles of Danny and Sandy, Jessie Dez and Dorian Quinn did a fine job of playing characters who are honestly a lot less interesting than the more colorful supporting ones. Jordan Gonzalez was probably the strongest performer of the bunch as brassy bad gal Rizzo, approaching “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with the over the top energy that the comedic number required and singing the heck out of the character’s famous solo “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”
Meanwhile, two understudies were also in the mix last weekend: Caiti Marlowe had only a few days to learn the role of pushy Patty Simcox, while Meg Frost, who was originally slated to play the part as well as serving as the show’s female swing, was unexpectedly moved up into the role of Marty.
I would have never guessed that either performer was new to their role, as Marlowe stole the show in her comedic scenes with the dorky Eugene, excellently played by Eytan Deray. And Frost’s flirty “Freddy My Love” was probably another of the night’s highlights, as was Kat Gold’s soulful rendition of “Raining on Prom Night.”
One way this production did go against the Grease grain is by choosing the actress that plays Miss Lynch to double as the Teen Angel who appears to Frenchy rather than the actor who plays Vince Fontaine, as is more traditional.
However, despite actress Jennifer McClain’s strong vocals and charismatic presence, this is one of a few songs in which the orchestra seemed to overpower the performers, one major technical flaw I noticed in the otherwise pristine production.
This made the lyrics hard to make out, which is particularly unfortunate since the lyrics to Beauty School Dropout are some of the show’s funniest. We did, though, still have plenty for our eyes to feast on during the number thanks to Penny Williams’ costume design and Clifford Spulock’s lighting design, including not only the angel herself’s shimmering extravagant number but the hilarious costumes worn by rest of the cast as her backup dancers.
Angela Morando Taylor’s choreography also made an impression with a few particularly memorable flares, such as in a hoppin’ “Born To Hand Jive” and when the characters joyfully prance offstage through the house door as they chanted their last few choruses of “Chang chang changitty chang sha-bop,” which means…. What, exactly?
Well, inane as those lyrics are, they, and the score as a whole, sure are catchy, so maybe I should stop complaining about the conventionality of Grease and simply surrender to the silliness of the cheesy songs, a few of which are still stuck in my head.
You may also want to note that while most of the other large-scale shows I’ve been to recently required proof of vaccination or negative tests at the door, this one didn’t. Though masks were indeed required, concessions were sold and could be consumed at seats.
If you feel alright about braving the crowds and are in the mood for a rockin and rollicking good time, you have until this January 30th to roll into MNM’s Grease!