Sept. 14 2016 10:43 AM

Riverwalk Theatre brings authenticity to familiar musical

Just a few months ago, a certain City Pulse reviewer lamented attending yet another version of “Grease.” Friday, the same fellow found himself assigned to review yet another production of the rock ‘n’ roll musical that has been shown on and off Broadway, on film, on live TV and on seemingly endless community, college and high school stages.

In April, I reviewed the Michigan State University Department of Theatre’s version of "Grease." That used the original script, a more hardcore and explicit version than the versions we normally encounter. Friday, director Eric Chatfield unveiled a Riverwalk Theatre interpretation that was more suited for the Hallmark Channel. Did it matter? Not a hell — excuse me, heck — of a lot.

“Grease” is “Grease” is “Grease.” Any take on the high school musical will have some amount of charm. The Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey play has catchy songs, wild dancing, funny characters and teen debauchery. Riverwalk’s over two-hour show had all that — but presented in fairly tame fashion.

This production features Laura Croff as Rydell High’s Miss Lynch. She delivered the curtain speech completely in character, including a beehive hairdo, offering a clue to what treats were to follow. The fast-changing Croff blended over-the-top theatrics with the right mix of sauciness and comedy, like a mix of Lilly Tomlin, Lucille Ball and Miss Hathaway from “Beverly Hillbillies.” She delivered a one-of-a-kind performance in a role that I thought was probably exhausted by now. Bravo.

Riverwalk’s “Grease” featured some high-class singing from the senior class of Rydell High, accented by classy lighting and sets. Classic costumes also added some, well, class. An onstage drive-in with an original cheesy movie — starring creator Matt Ottinger as the Mad Scientist —was something I’ve never seen in a “Grease” theatrical performance. (Nor had I seen a back wall decorated with enormous painted faces of James Dean and a young Elizabeth Taylor. I get it; it’s the ‘50s.)

The use of period microphones and pop bottles and prom dresses designed by Chanae Houska made Riverwalk’s “Grease” feel more authentic than many productions I’ve seen. A Burger Palace set with realistic furniture — expertly inserted by Michele Booher-Purosky and her stage crew — was an appreciated addition.

But at times, the trappings were not enough to distract me from the occasional sour notes or the poor sound mix. Sometimes I found it hard to hear principal voices, while other times I heard cringe-worthy singing all too well. “Mooning” had me swooning — but not in a good way.

Brian Farnham, as Danny, hit some remarkable falsetto notes. But with so many potent and famous Dannys before him, he lacked the charisma and fluid swagger we’ve come to expect of the role. Others were more worthy of their duties in the never-ending lineage of “Grease” performers, including Meghan Eldred (as Betty Rizzo), who delivered a formidable solo with “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”

There were shining moments, like when the group danced energetically in perfect unison to “Hand Jive” or when Rachael Raymer (as Jan) squealed and giggled or when Jordan Taylor (as Teen Angel) hit angelic high notes. Fights were flawlessly choreographed by Josh Dravenstatt and Kaley Mae Rahl. But the cast was at its best when it sang together with genuine power — even if some of the “teens” looked like they must have flunked repeatedly to still be in high school.

If you are the kind of person who watches “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” every Halloween, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas season, maybe seeing “Grease” over and over is okay with you. Me? If I see it on another season calendar, I’ll be outta there like greased lightnin’.

“Grease”
Riverwalk Theatre
7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15;
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16 and Saturday, Sept. 17;
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18
$22/$20 students, seniors and military
Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing
(517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com

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