Theatre Review: ‘Grease’ at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, PA

Matthew Ragas, Laura Giknis and Company of Grease at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Matthew Ragas, Laura Giknis and Company of Grease at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ok guys and gals, throw your mittens around your kittens and take a trip up to Philadelphia’s most popular theatre company, Walnut Street Theatre, for a high energy trip back to the 1950s and Rydell High School. Relive a time in America when Saturday night meant going to the drive-in and the soda fountain and a time when our biggest worry was who we were going to take to the high school hop. I am talking about the wop bop a loo bop musical hit Grease and this production chooses to present the show closer to the way the original Broadway version in the 1970s was done.

… it will leave you rockin’, shakin’ and rollin’ all the way home.

Many of us forget that Grease started as a small Off-Broadway musical before running for 3,388 performances on Broadway. In recent years it has had two major revivals but because people feel everything has to be big in production, the show in my opinion has been vulgarized in the years since the original. The fact that the movie was so successful might be part of the problem. People go expecting to see the movie onstage not realizing it was a stage piece first.

Michael Warrell, Adolpho Blaire, Matthew Ragas, Matthew Rossoff and Richard Cerato in Grease at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Michael Warrell, Adolpho Blaire, Matthew Ragas, Matthew Rossoff and Richard Cerato in Grease at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Walnut Street Theatre’s production with only two exceptions presents the show as close to the original production as you can get. Director Bruce Lumpkin’s focus is bringing the story forward so it’s not all about the songs. This is the way I like to see Grease performed, with a simple approach, so the material can speak for itself.

Performance wise this cast is as good as any you’ll find in the country. As the two teenage lovers, Sandy Dumbrowski and Danny Zuko (Laura Giknis and Matthew Ragas) turn in solid and heartwarming performances. Giknas knocks “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which is inserted from the film, out of the park and Ragas does total justice to his solo “Alone at a Drive-In Movie.” Other standout performances include the wisecracking Kenickie played by Michael Warrell and the hilarious Mary Martello as Rydell High School’s principal Miss Lynch. But by far the standout performance for me was Kate Fahrner as Betty Rizzo. Her total performance arc goes from being playful with the mocking “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee” to the poignant “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” You might find Rizzo rude and crass but Fahrner’s performance actually made you care about the character.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention Marty played by Rachel Camp. Her rendition of my favorite song in the show “Freddy My Love” did not disappoint. It would be impossible for me to name everyone but make no mistake this cast is totally solid and it really looks like they are enjoying every minute of the performance.

Choreographer Michelle Gaudette’s work is spot on and catches the flavor of the 1950s perfectly. Her “Born to Hand Jive” is a prime example of someone who really gets how fun the show is.

A huge round of attention and applause goes to Music and Vocal Director Douglas G. Lutz and his rockin’ seven piece band for adding some wonderful accompaniment to the proceedings. It also was nice to hear the original Michael Leonard orchestrations utilized as they best capture the 50s sound that writers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey were trying to evoke.

Matthew Ragas and Laura Giknis in Grease at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Matthew Ragas and Laura Giknis in Grease at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Scenic designer Cliff Simon uses the stage to full advantage. The set is complete with a working car, old style high school bleachers and lockers. I appreciated the caricature of James Dean and the fact that the set only enhanced and did not overpower the production like it did in the last two Broadway revivals. Lisa Zinni’s costumes complete with leather jackets and poodle skirts et al add to the fun as does Richard Winkler’s snazzy lighting design.

Grease has now been a part of the American culture for over 40 years now.  After seeing Walnut Street Theatre’s production, I understand why. It’s not all about who’s getting some action or who can beat up whom. I think Grease is about innocence and evokes a time in this country that unfortunately does not exist anymore. With its themes of love, friendship and fun, Grease will continue to please audiences for years to come. Take a weekend or day trip to Philadelphia and see a landmark musical in the country’s oldest theatre. This production of Grease is definitely worth it and with all that talent, onstage it will leave you rockin’, shakin’ and rollin’ all the way home.

Running Time: Two Hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.

Grease plays through July 21st, 2013 at Walnut Street Theatre which is located at 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia, PA

Tickets can be purchased over the phone, at the box office or online.

About Elliot Lanes

Elliot Lanes has been a professional stage manager/sound designer/board op for over 20 years. After relocating to Washington, DC from the New York City area and marrying the girl of his dreams Jennifer Perry, he has been privileged to work on productions at Theatre J, Synetic, Prince George's Community College and Studio Theater to name a few. He has contributed designs for many shows in the last three Capital Fringe Festivals, two of which garnered critical raves. He is also the creator of MD Theatre Guide's highly successful 'A Quick 5' column.