GREASE Is Still The Word At The Levoy Theatre

by S. Lee Lewis

Upon entering the Levoy Theatre in Bridgetown, New Jersey I was immediately awestruck – it is possibly one of the most beautiful, well maintained theatres I have had the pleasure of sitting in. So, first and foremost – well done to the staff of the Levoy for immediately giving me a good feeling upon entering the building.

Yasenia Wagner (left), Domonic Barnes,
Andrew Jarema, Kelsey Hogan, PJ Muniz and Erin Fisher sing “We Go Together.”

I am not sure that one can possibly have a bad time at any production of GREASE– no matter how the production is presented. The songs are catchy, the story is familiar, and the show itself is a blast. That said, there is a lot that goes into making a production of GREASE shine and stand out – and unfortunately Off Broad Street missed the mark – and in some cases, technically – missed it by a wide margin.

Let’s start with one of the most stellar elements of the show – the scenic design. Mary Boner’s design is definitely the star of the show. With each passing scene I was mesmerized by the scenic elements. I’ll admit, at first I was skeptical. The locker flats on either side of the stage acting as portals left me bewildered – they seemed a bit sophomoric and out of place, even more so when the rest of the design was revealed and every piece seemed just perfect. She designed pieces that not only were ideal for each scene, but made transitions simple, and smooth. Enough praise cannot be given to her for making this enjoyable set.

Unfortunately, the technical kudos end here. The costume design by Melissa Kiessling seemed inconsistent and in some cases off-putting. It was very obvious that much work went into costuming the 40+ ensemble but some costumes seemed more like last minute decisions rather than calculated design choices. The costume that stand out most to me is Frenchy’s costume during ‘Beauty School Dropout.’ It was an ill-fitting dress and while I appreciate the idea of her character’s outfit standing out among the rest of the cast, it looked as if suddenly we forgot that Frenchy needed another outfit so it was pulled for her out of existing stock. While we are on the topic of ‘Beauty School Dropout’ I should mention the costume for ‘Teen Angel’ seemed like a mix between pajamas and a linen suit – I was confused.

The costume inconsistencies were also present in the choices of pants for the males in the show. It seemed as if the boys were all just told to bring in a pair of jeans from home. They ranged from the tight rolled jeans that were period appropriate to pants reeking of Bugle Boy 80’s styles. That said, I truly understand the daunting task of costuming 40+ actors and while there were inconsistencies, at the end of the day, Kiessling should be congratulated for the sheer task of making sure actors weren’t naked onstage. The 50’s are such an iconic decade that any misstep is easily recognizable, but all-in-all she is to be commended.

The lighting design by Chris Kiessling and Michael Kutas was spotty and there was clearly a division of front light at the plaster line. Unfortunately, this is where most of the action seemed to take place, many actors were in shadow during key moments, and up-tempo songs seemed to be lit with brooding moody light. I’m not sure if this was an architectural downfall of the space or just poor focusing – but it was certainly distracting. Sadly, most of it could have been fixed with direction and repositioning actors further upstage or downstage – this would have been most appreciated especially in certain scenes.

Though, the biggest technical downfall of the evening was the sound design. I have yet to enjoy the sound design of any community theatre production I have seen (my own theatre included). I have come to the conclusion that the professional theatre sound designers have prayed to whatever sound gods they pray to in order to destroy the hopes and dreams of all local community theatre sound designers. If it isn’t feedback, then it is dead batteries – if it isn’t dead batteries, it is actors ‘accidently’ turning their microphone packs off. Junior Maaldonado of Arsenal Sound did his best, and again, with a 40+ person cast, this is daunting…hopefully he will get things a little more dialed in by opening night so there won’t be as many feedback and sound issues. God speed, my friend.

On to the individual actors…

What a treat is Sam Price as Sandy! She is adorable, sweet, and genuine. She has the voice of an angel as she is swooning over Danny in “Hopelessly Devoted to You” but quickly turned on the sass during “You’re the One That I Want”. Her acting was also stellar and I found myself staunchly in her corner rooting for her success.

Kelsey Hogan’s Frenchy kept me snickering in my seat. Her reactions were subtle when necessary, and over the top when called for – she clearly dialed in to the character and was brilliantly nuanced – she was a clear favorite of the crowd.

Another favorite of mine was Andrew Jarema as Doody. My favorite song in the show is ‘Magic Changes’ and Jarema nailed it. In a moment reminiscent of when Smudge sings “Rags to Riches/Shangri-La” in FOREVER PLAID, Jarema transitioned from a dorky chord-playing guitar novice to Elvis in his prime. A few other stand-outs were Dominic Barnes’ soulful portrayal of Roger, Doug Eppler’s smarmy Vince Fontaine, and Yasenia Wagner’s delightfully annoying Jan who simply stole any scene she was in!

A quick note about Leigh Anne Johnson’s portrayal of Rizzo. This, to me, is an enigma – wrapped in a puzzle – swallowed by a question. Johnson is certainly beautiful and clearly talented, though she seemed very out of place in the show. Her ruminating Rizzo did not seem to be taking the same steps as the rest of the cast – I was truly perplexed by her. I really enjoyed her and her performance (and her costumes were stellar – another example of where Kiessling got it very right) – but I did not think she belonged with or fit in with this cast of this GREASE.

On the subject of Teen Angel (Aaron S.) – if your bio is going to start with the fact that you are an award winning recording artist – you had better wow the audience.  But with this performance, I was underwhelmed.  Humility is a wonderful thing, and had this actor showed any, I would have been more forgiving in my review.  After the second, or third time, of practically stopping the song to wink at the hot girl in the audience, I was ready to move on. Seriously dude, it’s not a show about Teen Angel.

While I thought this show had an extremely talented cast and a wonderfully on par band, the thing that stuck with me at the end of the night was the fact that this show seemed to lack a choreographer while being over-choreographed at the same time. While I appreciate the effort of a ‘director/choreographer’ not everyone is a Rob Marshall or a Susan Stroman. At some point in time – a good director needs to know when to ask for help. The group numbers seemed forced, and the addition of ‘ensemble’ members was poorly handled with actors literally being thrown into numbers, in the background, at odd moments – they often seemed forgotten about and were utilized as a method to sell tickets, rather than advance plot lines. If you are going to have a large cast – use them – don’t abuse them. As a director, one of the most important parts of the job is to make an actor feel important – I think there may have been a few cast members in that show that questioned their importance. The dance numbers overall lacked any sense of style or panache, and the actors looked bored and like they were just going through the motions. I don’t question John T. Stephan’s (Director and Choreographer) ability as a director, as some of the scene work was handled beautifully, but I do challenge him to work with a seasoned choreographer and watch how much better of a director he becomes.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening. The good things about this show outweigh anything negative I have mentioned, and I hope that my critiques will be taken in stride. The folks sitting in the audience around me were really enjoying themselves and had a blast, as I am sure you will, too.

Book Music & Lyrics by Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey
Directed and Choreographed by John Y. Stephan
January 31 – February 9, 2014
The Off Broad Street Players
The Levoy Theatre
130 N. High Street
Millville, NJ 08332

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