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THEATER REVIEW : Elaborate Design Steals the Thunder in 'Grease' : The lights and set take center stage in Tommy Tune's touring production, overshadowing the choreography and the stars.

March 31, 1994|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They've gone and made "Grease" pretty.

Count the Day-Glo colors. Admire the silhouettes of the actors and their props. Watch the play of lights and shadows as they swoop in for the finale of each number.

From the ads, you might surmise that Rosie O'Donnell is the star. Think again. In this touring production at Orange County Performing Arts Center, the stars are offstage. We're talking John Arnone on sets and Howell Binkley on lights.

We're also talking about Tommy Tune. This is billed as "the Tommy Tune production," though Tune's protege Jeff Calhoun gets the director-choreographer credit. As in the last big Tune show seen here, "The Will Rogers Follies," the tall Texan appears to have become obsessed with design at the expense of what we thought was his specialty, choreography.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 1, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit--Calendar's "Grease" photograph was taken by free-lance photographer Rod Boren. His name was misspelled in Thursday's Times.

You'd expect a Tune-supervised "Grease" to feature a prom dance contest to end prom dance contests. But this one is awfully perfunctory, stuck with a "Hand Jive" number that by definition focuses on the hands instead of the legs, just as a similar number did in "Will Rogers."

It would be difficult to make much more out of that number, however, because the room for dancing has been radically shrunk by two picture-frame proscenium arches, one inside the other. The outer frame is lavishly decorated with colorful '50s imagery. The smaller, plainer frame appears to be an effort to re-create the ambience of a high school auditorium stage--not an altogether inappropriate choice, given the setting of "Grease" at Rydell High School.

These frames may serve an initial purpose, but they quickly become obstacles, cutting off too much of the back and sides of the stage. Any expectations that they'll be pulled back at some climactic moment are dashed.

Of course "Grease" has no real climaxes. The Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey book has no depth, and it might be argued that this shallow show belongs on a shallow stage. This might even make sense in this production's eventual home on Broadway. But in the larger Orange County hall, which lacks any compensatory intimacy unless you're in the first few rows, the combination of flat show and flat staging results in a flat experience.

Which isn't to deny that designers Arnone and Binkley have created some striking imagery. Spinning tires and Hula-Hoops in a couple of the big numbers add circular energy to the pictures. The actors are skilled at their familiar caricatures. But generally everything remains stubbornly two-dimensional. It's more of a revue devoted to '50s nostalgia than a living, breathing musical.

Susan Wood plays sweet Sandy, and Ricky Paull Goldin her summer flame Danny Zuko. Wood gets to sing an actual 1959 hit, "Since I Don't Have You," imported for this production, and pulls it off like a queen of the charts. A parental warning, in case you've somehow missed previous "Greases": We're supposed to enjoy Sandy's total capitulation to peer pressure.

O'Donnell's shtick is on target, though her singing voice doesn't sustain extended notes well. Sam Harris and Billy Porter make the most of their big solos; Porter's "Beauty School Dropout" gets a purposefully soulful arrangement and the show's most preposterous hairdos. As the school's one teacher, Marcia Lewis moves her voice between blowtorch and little-old-lady effects for maximum laughs.

Before the actual show begins, Brian Bradley's deejay warms up the audience with a pre-show and cajoles a few audience members into dancing with him.

\o7 * "Grease," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $19-$45. (714) 556-ARTS, (714) 740-2000, (213) 480-3232). Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

\f7 *

Marcia Lewis: Miss Lynch

Michelle Blakely: Patty Simcox

Paul Castree: Eugene Florczyk

Heather Stokes: Jan

Megan Mullally: Marty

Rosie O'Donnell: Betty Rizzo

Sam Harris: Doody

Hunter Foster: Roger

Jason Opsahl: Kenickie

Carlos Lopez: Sonny Latieri

Jessica Stone: Frenchy

Susan Wood: Sandy Dumbrowski

Ricky Paull Goldin: Danny Zuko

Brian Bradley: Vince Fontaine

Sandra Purpuro: Cha-Cha Digregorio

Billy Porter: Teen Angel

Barry & Fran Weissler, Jujamcyn Theaters present the Tommy Tune production of the musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun. Sets by John Arnone. Costumes by Willa Kim. Lights by Howell Binkley. Hair by Patrik D. Moreton. Sound by David Dansky. Musical direction and arrangements John McDaniel. Orchestrations Steve Margoshes. Associate choreographer Jerry Mitchell.

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