Seen on Broadway: The byproduct of the reality TV show You’re the One That I Want, Grease has rocked and rolled its way back to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, in an undemanding, inoffensive, but somewhat depressing production. I never watched the low-rated program, so can only imagine the poverty of the competition, yet in the real world (as opposed to the reality one) there is no way director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall would have allowed the Sandy of Laura Osnes and the Danny of Max Crumm onstage. She is nothing if not perky-pleasant; he is more Dustin Hoffman than John Travolta, which might have been interesting had he the ability to make something of his miscasting. Most of the reviews have been grateful that the insipid leads didn’t turn out worse. Still, the choice of sub-American Idol quality contestants to headline a Broadway show does not speak well of quality standards out there in TV-land, and if You’re the One That I Want: The Iceman Cometh is announced I may have to relocate, though not to the West End of London, where another viewer-driven Grease is running.
Whatever qualities it had in its original, record-breaking engagement 35 years ago, Grease is now audience comfort food, with the popular songs written for the 1978 movie added in to nosh on. Even with its AARP-ready cast the film is superior to the stage show in every way, which Marshall, who imaginatively fine-tuned The Pajama Game for its recent revival, has given a by-the-numbers, La-Z-Boy staging. The only performer who was really born to hand-jive is one you can’t always see from behind the sets—the black-clad music director, Kimberly Grigsby, who, perched high above the stage with the orchestra, is clearly having a great time waving her baton around. (If only it were a magic wand, capable of breathing life into the shopworn material.) As it was, the cast got an appreciative round of applause at the end, but the audience was hopelessly devoted to the conductor.
Though the actors may be amateur hour, the designers are blue chip, and mostly retained from The Pajama Game. The strongest contribution comes from sound designer Brian Ronan, whose audio is crystalline. Not far behind is costumer Martin Pakledinaz, whose 50s get-ups provide flair and character when the performers cannot. The usually excellent Derek McLane and Kenneth Posner, however, seem to have been constrained by the budget, with McLane turning out a succession of shaky-looking setpieces to suggest the Southern California locales and Posner responding with routine lighting. [Hudson Scenic Studio built and automated the scenery, Hudson Sound & Light supplied the lighting, and PRG the sound.] The TV show might have had moments of high drama; the stark reality is, Grease is thoroughly uninspired.
Seen Off Broadway: The Signature Theatre Company, which devotes its season to the work of a single playwright, has begun an overview of Charles Mee with a premiere, Iphigenia 2.0. A historian with a taste for the eclectic and avant-garde, Mee specializes in free-handed rewrites of classic texts (which he makes available online) and the new show puts Euripides through the blender. Dispensing with metaphor, he front-and-centers references to the Iraq War, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and bubble-headed celebrity culture as Agamemnon (Tom Nelis), who in this retelling is beholden to his soldiers and not to the gods, considers sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia (Louisa Krause, who has earned a romantic comedy after this and Neil LaBute’s In a Dark, Dark House back-to-back), to prove that he is dead serious about sending them to fight the Trojan War.
Reunited with his usual collaborator, director Tina Landau, Mee provides a party mix to go along with the warfare. Iphigenia 2.0 has been staged as a semi-musical, with hip-hop, standards, and Greek dancing performances cut in, athletic romps for the soldiers as they climb about the stage, and Kate Mulgrew playing Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, as a Dynasty-era vamp, resplendently bosomed in Anita Yavich’s period-spanning costumes. As well-designed as Second Stage’s acclaimed production of Eurydice, Iphigenia 2.0 is also a lot more fun—that is, till Mee yanks the rug out from under us, for the unnerving climax of the drama.
Blythe R.D. Quinlan’s strikingly detailed set deserves a look-see for closer inspection once the 80-minute performance has concluded. I didn’t see a kitchen sink, but there is, tucked away on stage right, a children’s wading pool, complete with a toy swimmer. That’s not something you’d ever see from the seats but shows how purposeful she was in her design, which includes a strategy map and pins on one wall, a selection of pin-ups on another, and G.I. Joe dolls arranged for combat. Scott Zielinski puts the lights on high for the most intense sequences (and brings them down to attain a brute focus for others) but as your attention will be riveted on the actors save a minute or two before leaving for your own scrutiny. Jill BC DuBoff does creditable work on the audio design—by the end, the wailing and keening are undistinguishable from the orgiastic partying, a crazy-quilt of emotions resolved only by a final descent into deathly silence. [Daedalus Design & Production built the scenery, with Hayden Production Services credited with lighting supply and Jarvis Sound Design the audio]. Iphigenia 2.0 is scheduled to run through Sept. 30 at the Peter Norton Space.
Playwriting 101 holds that if the value of a precious object or heirloom is established at the outset, then the thing of beauty must be shattered by the climax. I was about to give Michael Hollinger’s Opus, a Primary Stages production at the 59E59 Theatres, high marks for avoiding this admittedly rousing cliché, as the show seemed to end…but this otherwise absorbing study in group dynamics goes on for a final, overly melodramatic sequence that lays it on too thick. This wrong note aside, however, Opus proves a middlebrow crowd-pleaser, about the breakup and tenuous reformation of an acclaimed string quartet that is one revelation away from dissolving altogether. Terrence J. Nolen directs at an up tempo pace, and the five performers—four veterans, and a female player (Mahira Kakkar) who joins when its most brilliant, unstable member (Michael Laurence) has a breakdown—are fine concealing hidden homosexuality, neuroses, and illnesses from one another as an important White House engagement looms.
Without Jorge Cousineau’s impeccable sound design, there would be no show. The actors mime playing some of Beethoven’s more difficult pieces to his pre-recorded track; they looked okay to my novice eyes, but one false move on the soundtrack and Opus would be dead in the water. There is none. James Kronzer’s set, with its motif of compositional notes, is elegant and understated, as are Justin Townsend’s mood-setting lighting and Anne Kennedy’s mostly workaday clothes (the primarily graying castmembers clean up well for their tuxedoed recital). [Plumb Square Scenic built the set, and GSD Productions provided the lighting and audio.] Engrossing, if a little hokey, Opus runs through Sept. 1. —Robert Cashill