Jennifer Hope Wills and Andy Karl in Grease!(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Jennifer Hope Wills and Andy Karl in Grease!
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Grease! is a cheesy musical. Its most famous song is about a car that doesn't really exist, and its characters are exaggerations of 1950s high school types: the tough guy, the feisty girl, the innocent newcomer, the nerd, the peppy cheerleader, and so on. While embracing this cheesiness may be the only way to make Grease! work, the production currently running at the Paper Mill Playhouse takes that notion a little too far.

The familiar story takes place at Rydell High School and focuses on two groups of hip kids that call themselves the Pink Ladies and the Burger Palace Boys. Danny Zuko has fallen in love with the sweet Sandy Dumbrowski over the summer, but when she turns out to be the new girl at Rydell High, he has to act cool and pretend she doesn't mean anything to him. It's not until Sandy reinvents herself as a sultry Pink Lady that she and Danny can finally be together. The rest of the plot deals with the various dilemmas of the Boys and the Ladies, from Frenchy's decision to drop out of high school in order to attend beauty school to the on again, off again romance between Rizzo and Kenickie.

Andy Karl offers a worthy performance as Danny but, on the whole, the cast isn't particularly memorable. Jennifer Hope Wills plays Sandy as weak and John Jeffrey Martin brings little to the role of Kenickie. Leslie Kritzer sings Rizzo's songs well but seems miscast. The best work of the evening comes from the featured performers: Stacy Harris is funny as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, and as Doody, Justin Bohon -- recently seen on Broadway in Oklahoma! -- contributes some of the show's best singing and dancing in "Those Magic Changes." Similarly, "Mooning" has strong vocals by Benjie Randall as Roger, nicely complimented by Heather Jane Rolff as Jan.

Director Mark S. Hoebee has created some funny moments, such as the gag where Sonny (played by Clyde Alves) hides a cigarette from his teacher in an unusual place. But much of the action seems forced. The choreography, by Hoebee and Jeffrey Amsden, doesn't fare much better, though the dancers do perform some impressive flips. Staging "We Go Together" as a hula-hoop extravaganza is silly; even worse is "Beauty School Dropout," which includes enough fog to drown the first 10 rows of the orchestra.

Paper Mill has worked in a handful of songs from the 1978 movie version of the musical -- the first time this has been done in the New York area. "Sandy" and "You're the One That I Want" fit the plot nicely, but "Hopelessly Devoted to You" comes entirely too early and makes Sandy a wimp from the beginning. The title song is performed as the show's first big number, introducing the main characters with what's supposed to be a lighthearted look back at the '50s.

Grease! is a fun show, but nothing more. It's hard for any production to make this less-than-brilliant musical look better than it is.