Opening Nights: Period Pieces

Reliving the ’50s and the ’80s—the 1880s.

Grease5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., 625-1900, www.5thavenue.org. $22–$88. 7:30 p.m. Tues.–Wed., 8 p.m. Thurs.–Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 1:30 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends May 30.The year is 1959 at Rydell High School. And its horny students are obsessed with getting cars, getting drunk, and, obviously, getting laid. The current tour of Grease, which pulls songs from both the original musical and the 1978 film, is a retro-rock romp through every clichéd high-school scene imaginable—cheerleader tryouts, drive-ins, and the always very necessary melodramatic (fake) pregnancy scare. The production's leads—Eric Schneider as handsome bad boy Danny Zuko and Emily Padgett as goody two-shoes Sandy Dumbrowski—are great in their roles because they know better than to take them too seriously. Schneider plays the part of a leather-clad, chain-smoking jackass with exaggerated gusto. And Padgett follows most of her saccharine-sweet, eye-roll-inducing lines with an intentionally vacant Barbie-esque smile.Things took a strange turn after intermission this past Friday, however, when it was announced without explanation that understudy Ruby Lewis would be stepping in for Padgett for the remainder of the show. The transition went smoothly since Lewis has a similar voice and appearance, but it was hard to look at her smiling face—maybe it was my imagination, but she seemed a little smug—and not wonder if maybe a little Tonya Harding action had occurred backstage. (The 5th tells us that Padgett had suffered an injury in the rehearsal right before the show and decided not to go on for Act 2. She's now back for the rest of her performances. Hmmm...)Luckily, distracting the audience from that bit of creepiness were hilarious performances by Kelly Felthous as the adorable Marty, a ditzy blonde with a preference for older guys, and Bridie Carroll as the awkward and slightly overweight Jan. The only misstep was Allie Schulz's bitter interpretation of Rydell's signature slut Rizzo. What's up with the incessant bitching and moaning, Schulz? Maybe you missed the memo, but Rizzo isn't knocked up for real. (Sigh. Nobody can do Rizzo like Stockard Channing...)Of course, the best thing about Grease isn't its story line or characters (obviously), but its cheese-tastic musical numbers. Beloved hits like "Summer Nights" and "You're the One That I Want" had me—and everybody else—grinning like damn fools. But most of the buzz surrounding this production has been focused on American Idol winner Taylor Hicks' appearance as Teen Angel. He is great, albeit over-the-top, in his role. With a sparkling suit and his trademark harmonica, he sashays through a number advising beauty-school dropout Frenchy(Kate Morgan Chadwick) to go back to high school. Her coy response: "I voted for you." The exchange elicited the evening's biggest laughs. And while many fans will be turned off by the polished—or is it greasy?—self-awareness, it'd be far worse for this production not to acknowledge the gimmick, given that Hicks performs his lame new single at the end of each show. ERIKA HOBARTPICK: Show BoatVillage Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah, 425-392-2202, www.villagetheatre.org. $22–$58. 8 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends July 3.Taken with Edna Ferber's 1926 novel Show Boat, tracing the lives of three generations of entertainers over 40 years of evolving musical fashions, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II realized it could be the basis of a new kind of musical play—not a Viennese operetta, not a vaudeville-style gags-&-showgirls revue. In adapting it to the stage, they not only essentially invented the American musical as we know it—a mix of comedy and drama, spectacle and social message, sophistication and immediate appeal—but created a work in this genre that's been rarely, arguably never, surpassed.It's as though the first play ever written in English was Hamlet, the first film ever made Citizen Kane. How did they do it? Consider the stunning Act 1 hat trick, the songs "Make Believe," Old Man River," and "Can't Help Lovin' 'Dat Man"—any one of which on its own could have anchored and ensured the popularity of a show. In Show Boat they come bam, bam, bam, right in a row. And in three different styles: romantic schmaltz, spiritual, bluesy rouser.If you want to understand the greatness of this musical—the sureness of its dramatic construction, the beauty of its score, its emotional wallop, its splashy fun—just go see Village Theatre's production. Show Boat's backdrop is the sweep of American pop culture itself during a particularly eventful period of change, from 1880s mellerdrammers and "coon songs" to the Broadway and Hollywood of the '20s, against which director Jerry Dixon skillfully foregrounds the characters' stories. It's a show that can take a grand-opera treatment, with huge sets and a cast of dozens, but Village Theatre makes it work captivatingly in a smaller house—partly because Robert A. Dahlstrom's lovely sets make the most of the space, partly through Stanley Wesley Perryman's clever choreography, but primarily because the casting is just about perfect.Leading the ensemble is Larry Albert as Captain Andy Hawks, head of the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre; Megan Chenovick as his daughter Magnolia, who grows from stagestruck ingenue to grande dame of Chicago cabaret; and Richard Todd Adams, with a bit of '30s radio crooner in his tenor, as her feckless gambler husband Gaylord Ravenal. As song-and-dance man Frank Schultz, Greg McCormick Allen wins the title, I think, of Cast Member Who Would Have Felt Most at Home on an Actual Show Boat. Cayman Ilika (recently seen in the revue Always... Patsy Cline at ACT) scores in the juiciest role, Julie—the center of the script's unprecedentedly hard-hitting miscegenation subplot—thanks to a voice that's startlingly beautiful just where it counts, the torchy bottom fifth. This rollicking, elegant, light-on-its-feet production makes Show Boat feel like the history-making landmark it is without embalming it; it's full of period-piece charm without a whiff of mustiness. GAVIN BORCHERT

 
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