Paper Mill Playhouse closes out its 2013-14 season with hot rods, poodle skirts, and summer lovin'.
The statute of limitations for criticizing the less-than-air-tight material in Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's musical phenomenon Grease passed long before the majority of Paper Mill Playhouse's latest group of Rydell High hoodlums were even born. The New Jersey regional production, which borrows its design from the 2007 Broadway revival (sets by Derek McLane and costumes by the late Martin Pakledinaz), fortunately reaps the benefits of this unspoken Grease immunity clause. Indulging us in the infectiously high-energy love letter to 1950s teenage camaraderie, we silently forgive the overwritten dialogue, sappy soliloquies, and musical numbers that seem to pull the emergency brake on an already thin plot.
Taylor Louderman, who made a name for herself in 2012 as the star of Broadway's high-flying Bring It On The Musical, returns to her high school roots as the production's fresh-faced leading lady, Sandy Dumbrowski. A child of the Midwest, Louderman's natural aura of all-American charm makes her a perfect choice to fill Sandy's saddle shoes. A radiant sweetness pours out of her from the show's opening video reel of star-crossed summer lovers Sandy and Danny Zuko (the equally lovable Bobby Conte Thornton) reveling in their summer romance as they frolic on the beach. Director Daniel Goldstein's somewhat sappy opener, set to the sweeping "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," is a homage to the beginning sequence of the iconic 1978 film adaptation, famously starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
Yet, as the rules of drama and teen angst command, all good things must come to an end and Danny returns to his motley crew of obnoxious, sex-crazed rabble-rousers, the T-Birds, at Rydell High School. In a twist of fate, Sandy, too, finds herself at Rydell, though her naïveté is ridiculed by the T-Birds and its sassy sister group, the Pink Ladies, tearing the teenage lovebirds apart. While Louderman remains endearing throughout — her strong, clear voice showcased most notably in her signature ballad "Hopelessly Devoted to You" — the character leaves as much to be desired as the milquetoast personality that repels Rydell's most insubordinate students. The exaggeratedly innocent Sandy that Louderman and Goldstein have molded remains stuck in the one-dimensional archetype of a do-gooder until her spandex-laden transformation in the show's finale. As hopeless devotees ourselves, we continue to root for her success, though her social oblivion begins to grow tiresome after the third and fourth romantic tiff.
Even so, Thornton is convincing in his decidedly unconventional infatuation with the devout goody-two-shoes. Though not a traditional heartthrob (and among the youngest of the main cast as a rising college senior), he takes command of the T-Birds with the silent charisma of a true leader. He doesn't quite have Travolta's hips to lend to the large dance sequences (creatively choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter), but his silky-smooth voice is heart-melting, particularly in his solo number, "Sandy," which he croons after being brutally rebuffed at the drive-in.
The remaining T-Birds and Pink Ladies make up a serviceable crew of classmates. Two-time Tony Award nominee Robin De Jesús, who takes on the role of the adorably dim-witted Doody, and Morgan Weed, who plays the rebellious and emotionally guarded Rizzo, stand out in their respective cliques, making the roles their own rather than attempting to fill the shadows of past residents. Dana Steingold offers a strong comedic performance as Frenchy, the squeaky-voiced beauty school dropout who receives a surprise visit from a suave guardian angel, played by a subdued though beautifully tenor-voiced Telly Leung, instructing her (and all the kids in the audience) to stay in school.
Goldstein, however, calls attention to the long list of inherent foibles the show requires us to overlook. Both the aesthetic and the performances apologetically land between the stage musical's original campy humor and the more grounded comedic sensibilities of the film adaptation. Rather than striking a comfortable balance between the two, the production finds a voice that is less nuanced than it is tentative — an adjective that should only apply to the virginal Sandra Dee in the definitively boisterous kingdom of Grease.
Still, like your favorite cover band, Paper Mill's production does manage to scratch the itch for this feel-good chestnut, whose score has become a necessary part of the sing-along repertoire of any musical-theater nerd worth his or her salt. True, the production does not reinvent the wheel (or its stolen hubcaps), but the Paper Mill team smooths on just enough grease to remind us why the old standby will stay safely tucked away in the Broadway archives for years to come.