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Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Join GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Join GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

by  May. 20, 2019  

Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Join GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Pittsburgh CLO will fill the Benedum Center with the sock-hop sounds of the original high school musical, GREASE, June 7 - 16. Tickets are now available by phone at 412-456-6666, online at pittsburghCLO.org or by visiting the Box Office at Theater Square.

Superstar of stage and silver screen, American Idol favorite and vocal virtuoso Clay Aiken joins the cast as Teen Angel!

Clay Aiken most recently starred on Broadway, alongside Ruben Studdard, in Ruben & Clay's First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show at the Imperial Theater. The New York Times called the production 'A Christmas Miracle'. This came ten years after Clay's critically lauded Broadway debut in Monty Python's Spamalot. On the heels of Idol, he became the first artist in history to have his first single debut at #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. His subsequent album, Measure Of A Man, also debuted at #1 with the highest first week sales by a debut artist. His 2004 holiday release, Merry Christmas With Love, set a record for the fastest selling holiday album of the SoundScan era and remains tied for the highest charting debut of a holiday album in Billboard history. He served 9 years as a UNICEF Ambassador and in 2003, he co-founded, with Diane Bubel, what is now the National Inclusion Project to advocate and increase opportunities for children with disabilities to be included in extracurricular activities (such as summer camps and after-school programs) with their non-disabled peers. Additional TV appearances include: 30 Rock, The Office, Scrubs, Days Of Our Lives, and Law & Order: SVU. Additional 2nd place finishes include: The Celebrity Apprentice in 2012 and the NC 2nd District US House race in 2014.

Since making its Broadway debut in 1972, Grease, the story of innocent, lovesick Sandy and bad-boy Danny attempting to rekindle a summer romance, has been captivating audiences of all generations. Take a rock 'n' roll trip back to the 1950s with electrifying choreography and unforgettable hits from the iconic movie including: "You're The One That I Want," "Summer Nights," "Greased Lightnin'" and many more.

Fresh off Broadway as Dimitri in Anastasia, Zach Adkins is making his Pittsburgh CLOdebut as the leather jacket wearing heartthrob, Danny Zuko. Joining Mr. Adkins in the role of wholesome new girl, Sandy, is Kristen Martin who returns to Pittsburgh CLO after starring as Ariel in Footloose. Ms. Martin has also been seen on Broadway in Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark, and as Nessa Rose in Wicked. Rounding out this high-energy cast of Pink Ladies and T-Birds is Jackie Burns, another Wicked alum (Broadway and National Tour) who holds the title for Broadway's longest running Elphaba, with over 1,300 performances, as Rizzo; and Damon J. Gillespie, who was featured on NBC's Rise and in Pittsburgh CLO's In the Heights, as Doody. This production will also feature a Teen Ensemble of 14 Pittsburgh CLO Academy students.

GREASE is completed with a talented ensemble including Jordan Alexander, Sky Bennett, Bailee Brinkman, William Bureau, Trevor Clarida, Pricilla Curtis, Croix Dilenno, Jamary Gil, Michael Greer, Jessica Ice, Chloe Kehm, Jeffrey Koch, Natalie Leonard, Meghan Manning, Charlie Patterson, Eric Phelps, Jenna Rifkind, Jake David Smith and Lawson Young.

Also joining the cast is our teen ensemble including Benjamin Godley-Fisher, Trisha Holmes, Caroline Lucas, Jayne Miner, Felicia Niebel, Will Palicki, Jonathan Parker, Madeline Sclichter, Braedan Steffey, Halle Surgil, Cameron Tino, Grace Vensel, Aaron Ventresca and Lucia Williams.

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Clay Aiken Will Join Jackie Burns, Zach Adkins, More in Pittsburgh CLO’s Grease

Clay Aiken Will Join Jackie Burns, Zach Adkins, More in Pittsburgh CLO’s Grease
MAY 20, 2019
Performances begin June 7 at the Benedum Center.
Once_on_This_Island_Broadway_Opening_Night_2017_Arrivals_30_HR.jpg
Clay Aiken Joseph Marzullo/WENN

American Idol favorite Clay Aiken, most recently on Broadway in Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show, will play the Teen Angel in the Pittsburgh CLO’s upcoming production of Grease.

Directed and choreographed by Barry Ivan, the limited engagement will play the Benedum Center June 7–16.

Aiken will be joined by Anastasia's Zach Adkins as Danny Zuko, Spider-Man's Kristen Martin as Sandy, Wicked's Jackie Burns as Rizzo, Damon J. Gillespie (NBC’s Rise) as Doody, Vince Oddo as Kenickie, Daniel J. Maldonado as Sonny, Alex Prakken as Roger, Becca Andrews as Marty, Melessie Clark as Jan, Mei Lu Barnum as Frenchy, Andrea Weinzierl as Patty, Jordan DeLeon as Eugene, Matt Bogart as Vince, Hannah Kohn as Cha-Cha, and Ruth Gotschall as Miss Lynch.

The company also includes Jordan Alexander, Sky Bennett, Bailee Brinkman, William Bureau, Trevor Clarida, Pricilla Curtis, Croix Dilenno, Jamary Gil, Michael Greer, Jessica Ice, Chloe Kehm, Jeffrey Koch, Natalie Leonard, Meghan Manning, Charlie Patterson, Eric Phelps, Jenna Rifkind, Jake David Smith, and Lawson Young.

The teen ensemble features Benjamin Godley-Fisher, Trisha Holmes, Caroline Lucas, Jayne Miner, Felicia Niebel, Will Palicki, Jonathan Parker, Madeline Sclichter, Braedan Steffey, Halle Surgil, Cameron Tino, Grace Vensel, Aaron Ventresca, and Lucia Williams.

With a book and score by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, Grease features such tunes as “We Go Together,” “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightning,” “Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee,” “Beauty School Dropout,” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” The original 1972 Broadway production featured Carole Demas as Sandy Dumbrowski and Barry Bostwick as Danny Zuko.

The creative team also includes musical director James Cunningham and casting director Geoff Josselson, CSA.

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triblive.com

Pittsburgh CLO version updates ‘Grease’ for the 21st century

Pittsburgh CLO version updates ‘Grease’ for the 21st century

SHIRLEY MCMARLIN   | Thursday, May 30, 2019 12:01 a.m.

Zach Adkins, a New York-based actor and Broadway veteran, says he has a challenge in playing too-cool-for-school Danny Zuko in Pittsburgh CLO’s production of “Grease.”

The 1971 musical “is sort of dated,” he says, so he — and the rest of the company — will be tasked with updating it for a 21th-century mindset while not depriving audiences of the show they love.

“Grease” will play June 7-16 in the Benedum Center in downtown Pittsburgh.

To refresh memories, Danny and Sandy meet cute on the beach in 1958 before their senior year of high school. Danny doesn’t tell the sweet and innocent girl that he’s really a greasy-haired, leather-jacketed member of the T-Birds.

Aussie Sandy was supposed to return home after the summer, but ends up enrolling at Rydell High in the fall, where she encounters the real Danny.

Will she become a tough-talking Pink Lady for him? Will he change for her? Will they split the difference and traipse off-stage singing, “You’re the One That I Want”?

Welcome to 2019

Though the cast will only have about a week to rehearse prior to opening night, Adkins says he discussed his role in advance with director/choreographer Barry Ivan.

“Barry’s take on the show is that it is very dated,” Adkins says. “Danny’s kind of a jerk. We’ve been talking about taking Danny and making him deeper, more relatable, more 2019. There’s a duality to him — he’s a tough guy in a leather jacket at school, but he’s very sweet and tender with Sandy (CLO veteran Kristen Martin).

“We’ve been talking about making sure Sandy is following her own dreams, because she’s a strong woman,” he says. “We don’t want people leaving with the message that men can get away with treating women poorly. We want to leave them with a good show, a positive message.

“We want people to remember their own summer loves, even if it was a flawed first love,” he says.

Adkins says most of the principals in the CLO production, which includes “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken in the role of Teen Angel, have never done “Grease” before. For himself, he found a very 21st-century way of preparing before his arrival in Pittsburgh.

“I recorded the opposite lines on my phone, so I can play them back and do my lines back to my phone,” he says.

Sing like a rock star

The 26-year-old Adkins says he’s looking forward to working with Aiken, knowing his legacy from the iconic singing competition.

Aiken has a particular challenge in the Teen Angel role, Adkins says, because the part requires the actor to come out cold and sing just one song — “Beauty School Dropout.”

Unlike the other cast members, who are onstage throughout, getting comfortable and loosening up their vocal chords, he says, “(Aiken) only gets one shot to nail it. He has to sit in his dressing room, then come out and sing one song. That’s the hardest thing for a performer to do.

“His time on ‘American Idol’ probably prepared him for that,” Adkins says. “I think he’s going to come out and sing it like a rock star.”

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post-gazette.com

Clay Aiken breaks free of Simon Cowell's dire Broadway warnings

Clay Aiken breaks free of Simon Cowell's dire Broadway warnings
 
 
SHARON EBERSON
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
 
JUN 5, 2019
 
2:07 PM
 
 
 

“American Idol” judge Simon Cowell hurled the word “Broadway” as a weapon at contestants who harbored pop-star dreams. Clay Aiken, who finished second in season 2, was one of them.

He recalls, “Simon used it to criticize us: ‘You’d be better in musical theater than here.’ ‘You should be on Broadway but you shouldn’t be a pop singer.’”

That was 2003, and Aiken has never forgotten those words. But he broke free when he replaced David Hyde Pierce in “Monty Python’s Spamalot” in 2009. Speaking within days of Friday’s opening as Teen Angel in Pittsburgh CLO’s “Grease,” Aiken was relating how, 16 years after “Idol,” he has performed in professional musical theater productions sporadically — in his hometown of Raleigh, for North Carolina Theatre, and in “Spamalot.”

“And I did another one in Ogunquit, because it was a month on the beach during summer in Maine,” he says. As for Pittsburgh, “There are only a few other companies in the country that are as good as CLO at what it does. That was the main motivation for coming here.”

He has played Pittsburgh many times as a solo artist, but this is his first time in the Benedum Center and “it’s just beautiful,” he says. As “Grease’s” Teen Angel (Frankie Avalon in the film; Billy Porter, among others, onstage), he has one song — “Beauty School Dropout” — and plenty of time to watch the youthful, energetic CLO ensemble. At 40, he is busy with concerts, recordings or as father to Parker, 11, but he says these CLO kids make him feel old.

“I certainly love the opportunity to do something silly and fun for a minute or two and then let the young people do the dancing,” he says with a laugh.

Here’s more of Clay Aiken on the post-“American Idol” years, Pittsburgh CLO and “Grease,” and how he has been dazzled by the Pittsburgh Cultural District.

Is your song in the show something you’ve ever thought about doing before?

Not really, but the music of “Grease” is also really great and very adaptable. I’m doing a little Clay Aiken version of it. The music is written in such a way that you can make it current, and this production specifically is very modern-day, and it’s a very diverse cast.

There are at least a half-dozen high school-themed musicals on Broadway today, and it seems that “Grease” led the way. What do you make of all the high school musicals?

When you grow up anywhere outside one of the big cities, musical theater is really the only chance that kids get in high school to perform. They don’t have a pop music program at the high school in Wade County [N.C., where he grew up]. They have musical theater … that’s the opportunity that kids have to express themselves. I think, smartly, writers and producers have recognized that that’s the audience.

Why has “Grease” endured for nearly 50 years?

I grew up watching Nick at Nite [when] it was still “The Donna Reed Show” and “Dobie Gillis,” and those shows made the ’50s look like everyone was wholesome and sweet and completely unrelatable. “Grease” did it in a way that I think is still relatable. I’ve got an 11-year-old, and I was watching the cast do scene work yesterday and I was like, “Oh, God, is this what I’m in for?” Rizzo’s nasty now! ... The CLO version is the real, raw version, and not the sort of idealized way we’ve seen the ’50s for so long in movies and on TV. I think that’s why it’s really relatable and has had longevity.

When you did “Spamalot,” how did that change the way you look at musical theater?

I didn’t have any plans to do Broadway when I did “Spamalot,” and part of that was having Simon Cowell tell me not to do that for however long. But I didn’t expect to absolutely love it. And part of the reason is that you are part of a community and a family when you are on stage, and prior to having done that, everything I had done had been just me. I toured with Kelly Clarkson in 2004 and that was the closest I had to a cast member. While that can be fun, it’s also a lot of pressure, and it can be lonely. … I’m just going to say it. It’s kind of nice sometimes to not be the star. I think I fell in love with that more than the musical theater part of it. 

And that brings us to your Broadway Christmas show with “AI” winner Ruben Studdard: “Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show.” You had a New York City run in December with sold-out shows and great reviews. Any chance of reviving that?

We can’t do it this Christmas, but it’s something we would love to do again … we just like working together. We went back to the “Idol” Fox finale, and we were the only two people who have kept in touch with each other from their season. Bo Bice hadn’t spoke with Carrie Underwood in years. Fantasia and Diana DeGarmo didn’t talk, and he and I, we had just talked the previous week. We always thought that was so strange. We just like being together. 

What’s your experience of Pittsburgh and CLO previous to this?

I knew about CLO because it’s one of the best summer stock companies, and it’s got a national reputation. I just hosted the Triangle [Rising Star high school musical awards for Central and Eastern North Carolina] a few weeks ago, and that’s a part of the national Jimmy Awards, and that was started in large part because of CLO. So I knew that, too. And I have been to Pittsburgh multiple times on tour, starting in 2003 … and it is just amazing what you’ve done. I’m thinking, “I could live here.” ... I’m looking out right now onto your Theater Square and it really is spectacular. I hope people in this city realize what they have.

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg. Sign up for the PG performing arts newsletter Behind the Curtain at Newsletter Preferences.

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Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

by  Jun. 7, 2019  

Pittsburgh CLO will fill the Benedum Center with the sock-hop sounds of the original high school musical, GREASE, June 7 - 16.

Superstar of stage and silver screen and American Idol favorite Clay Aiken stars as Teen Angel, with former 'Wicked' star Jackie Burns as Rizzo, Anastasia's Zach Adkins as Danny Zuko, and RISE star Damon J. Gilllespie as Doody!

Since making its Broadway debut in 1972, Grease, the story of innocent, lovesick Sandy and bad-boy Danny attempting to rekindle a summer romance, has been captivating audiences of all generations. Take a rock 'n' roll trip back to the 1950s with electrifying choreography and unforgettable hits from the iconic movie including: "You're The One That I Want," "Summer Nights," "Greased Lightnin'" and many more.

Tickets are now available by phone at 412-456-6666, online at pittsburghCLO.org or by visiting the Box Office at Theater Square.

Photo Credit: Matt Polk/Pittsburgh CLO

 

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Mei Lu Barnum & Damon J. Gillespe

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Eric Phelps, Clay Aiken & Matt Copley

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Clay Aiken And Cast

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Zach Adkins & Kristen Martin

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

The T-birds

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Andrea Weinzierl, Zach Adkins & Damon J. Gillespie

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Becca Andrews, Kristen Martin, Jackie Burns & Mei Lu Barnum

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Kristen Martin & The Pink Ladies

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

Melessie Clark & Becca Andrews

Photo Flash: Clay Aiken, Zach Adkins, Jackie Burns and More Star In GREASE at Pittsburgh CLO

The Cast Of Grease

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American Idol alum Clay Aiken dazzles in Pittsburgh CLO's Grease

American Idol alum Clay Aiken dazzles in Pittsburgh CLO's Grease 

By Lisa Cunningham @trashyleesuh
Clay Aiken in Grease - PHOTO: MATT POLK
  • Photo: Matt Polk
  • Clay Aiken in Grease

As “Teen Angel” in the Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Grease, Clay Aiken is only on stage for about five minutes. Those five minutes, however, are fab-u-lous.

 

If there were any doubt that the American Idol alumnus is still popular, one only needed to listen to the thunderous applause and squeals erupting throughout the Benedum Center on opening night as Aiken sang “Beauty School Dropout” in silver platform shoes, a sparkling pink suit, and Beethoven-like wig.

 

Remember those years between Aiken becoming runner-up on American Idol and appearing on the cover of People magazine declaring “Yes, I’m gay” when people still wondered about his sexuality? Me either. 2019 Clay Aiken is G-A-Y. And he embraces it, like an over-sized Martin Short in drag; his theatrics on point, and his voice booming. This Clay Aiken would have won American Idol.

But there's still plenty for fans of the popular production to enjoy during the rest of the performance as well, whether you're a fan of the 1978 film, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, or the original stage production — which, on opening night, coincidentally celebrated its 47th anniversary of moving to the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway on June 7, 1972.

The plot follows high school sweethearts Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski, who had a summer fling, only to unexpectedly find themselves at the same school in the fall. Danny is a member of the school's club of bad boys, the Burger Palace Boys, and Sandy soon joins the female cohort, The Pink Ladies.

All of the familiar characters are here: Frenchy, Jan, Sonny, Rizzo, and Kenickie. Film fans will be tempted to sing along to hits like "Summer Nights" and "Hopelessly Devoted to You," with some surprises from the original Broadway production not seen in the film, like "Mooning," performed by Alex Prakken. (Yes, you will see a bare butt.) The stage is often full, with a large cast of 17, an ensemble of 19, and a teen ensemble of 14.

 

Zach Adkins (Danny) and Kirsten Martin (Sandy) in Grease - PHOTO: MATT POLK
  • Photo: Matt Polk
  • Zach Adkins (Danny) and Kirsten Martin (Sandy) in Grease
While Zach Adkins is no John Travolta — his dance moves leave a lot to be desired for a character who wins a dance contest, he's got decent pipes and a charming smile: likewise, Kristen Martin is a likable Sandy, with a pretty voice and believable innocence. But it's the supporting cast of characters who really steal the show.

Jackie Burns kills as Rizzo and her emotional rendition of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" gives Aiken a run for his money as the true star of the show. Her chemistry with actor Vince Oddo as Kenickie oozes with the chemistry the others could only dream of. Forget the Danny and Sandy show; I want to see the Rizzo and Kenickie sequel.

The script largely sticks to the original, even though it could have benefited from some updates, with its scenes about introducing Sandy to smoking cigarettes and the dance contest declaring, "boy and girl couples only!" obviously dated. If Teen Angel can be a flamboyant gay man, how about introducing Sandy to pot instead of cigarettes and having Frenchy grinding with Cha-Cha at the school dance? And the peer pressure turning Sandy into an awkward leather-clad bombshell at the end, with little fanfare building up to it? In this day and age, the plot just feels, well, a little sad.

Still, the production is fun, light-hearted, and enjoyable throughout with a large cast that never takes itself too seriously. The dream sequences, with sparkling silver backdrops, are both kitschy and breathtaking. The dance choreography with such a large group is impressive, especially when the entire cast participates; one of the most fun parts of the entire evening was watching the teen ensemble join the other performers as they danced on stage. Hats off to teen Will Palicki whose contagious smile lit up the entire room, standing out even behind a large professional cast.

Grease. Through Sun., June 16. Pittsburgh CLO at Benedum Center. 237 Seventh St., Downtown. $26-81. pittsburghclo.org 

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post-gazette.com

Reviews: From the chilling future of 'Marjorie Prime' to the nostalgia of 'Grease'

Reviews: From the chilling future of 'Marjorie Prime' to the nostalgia of 'Grease'
 
 
SHARON EBERSON
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
 
JUN 10, 2019
 
11:34 AM

PIttsburgh CLO’s ‘Grease’

Let’s start by saying Clay Aiken in a pink-sequined suit is everything fun and fanciful about “Grease,” and his voice takes “Beauty School Dropout” to glorious heights.

It’s a world where Clay Aiken can play the same role — Teen Angel — also portrayed by Billy Porter on Broadway and Frankie Avalon on film, and Aiken plays it to the hilt, even getting a lift from a shirtless trio of chorus men.

‘Grease’

Where: Pittsburgh CLO at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Through June 16. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (2 p.m. only on June 16).

Tickets: $26.25-$81.25, pittsburghclo.org or 412-456-6666.

Now that I’ve fanned myself, this Pittsburgh CLO “Grease” is a hybrid of the Broadway play and the movie — it uses the music created just for the film, opening with the title song and including “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

There is a little less raunch than the original Broadway version, with lyrics to songs such as “Greased Lightning” cleaned up as in high school versions. But in case you are a parent who worries about such things, it should also be noted that there is an, um, mooning from the stage.

“Grease” is still a ’50s-era story of boys who love cars and pressure girls for sex, a possible teen pregnancy and those high school friendships you never forget.

The CLO production has some terrific voices — Jackie Burns as Rizzo, Zach Adkins as Danny, Kristen Marten as Sandy and Damon J. Gillespie as Doody among them — and it really moves.

The opening to “Grease,” with the principals emerging from lockers, is a cute idea, and the ensemble dance numbers come in waves of nostalgic moves, with some modern touches mixed in, courtesy of director/choreographer Barry Ivan.

This CLO production isn’t just a blast from the past; it’s also a fun night for Pittsburgh musical theater fans to see local actors such as Melessie Clark, Mei Lu Barnum, Andrea Weinzierl and Michael Greer get front-and-center moments.

The energy level is high, but there’s no question it steps up a notch when Clay Aiken struts out in the second act and gives Pittsburgh a taste of why his Claymates are hopelessly devoted to the former American Idol.

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BWW Review: Pittsburgh CLO's GREASE Is Still the Word at Benedum Center

BWW Review: Pittsburgh CLO's GREASE Is Still the Word at Benedum Center

by  Jun. 16, 2019  

BWW Review: Pittsburgh CLO's GREASE Is Still the Word at Benedum CenterWhen was the last time you went to a show and were disappointed that it wasnTand 't at all racist, sexist or homophobic? As Tevye would say, "sounds crazy, no?" But what if the show in question was a brutal satire about the blinding power of nostalgia, and the way it sands the rough, objectionable edges off the past in order to provide a palatable, mainstream-friendly image of a past that never was? Wouldn't you be justified in being a little disappointed that this new adaptation has lost its train of thought, and become the very thing it was once parodying? Or is that just as bad as the Internet trolls who got mad last month that "Archie Bunker can't say the N-word anymore" in the restaging of All in the Family and The Jeffersons?

This is a tricky issue. Lord knows I hope no one is accusing me of being a bigot in any way, and if I've offended anyone, I apologize strongly and sincerely. I suppose my issue here is with authorial intent and satire. The original Grease, even after it had been neutered for its initial Broadway run, was a spoof of period pieces. The music was primitive and a little squeaky-clean, but the characters singing it were unidealized losers: they used racial slurs, they treated their women like crap, they indulged guiltlessly in petty crime, and they made gay jokes and ethnic jokes like it was nothing. Even the women were rougher around the edges than you'd see in Happy Days, and not in endearing ways. The show's original opening sequence was a class reunion in which the goody-goodies of the 1950s announce that some of the classmates they remember the most would not be joining them: they were killed in Vietnam and Korea in the earliest, roughest version, they were in jail in a later revision, and finally they were "just too cool for class reunions." Instead, nowadays the greasers and Pink Ladies just burst out of a gym locker, strutting and singing "Grease Is the Word." They cuss a little, they tussle a bit, and some of their language isn't too PC, but you'd struggle to call the greasers or the Pink Ladies scumbags.

Take away that satiric underpinning of "forget Fonzie, this is what the fifties you daydream about were REALLY like," and you lose a little bit of cohesion. The show doesn't have too much of a plot; events just come and go in a loose picaresque, characters butt heads here and there, and eventually it sort of... ends. (Both the film version and the live TV version tweaked the plot to make things more linear and character based, as opposed to the "and now they're singing because we wrote a song" feel of the revised Broadway script, upon which this production is based.) At the same time, is this reinvention of the show as a genuine piece of nostalgia, instead of a criticism thereof, necessarily a bad thing? Sixty-some years removed from the birth of rock and roll, criticism of nostalgia feels less urgent and more futile- it's not like somebody today wrote a show pining for their glory days in the Bush Era. And as I looked around the theatre, I was amazed at how multigenerational the fanbase of Grease was. Sure, you had the usual mix of young millennials, families and blue-hairs (only it's Grease, so I saw more than a few pink-hairs), but then there were the wannabe T-Birds and Pink Ladies. (Yes, yes, I know they're actually called the Burger Palace Boys in the script, but the Burger Palace never actually appears in the revised script, nor are the greasers referred to by ANY gang name in the script, so everyone still thinks of them as the T-Birds unless they check the fine print in their program.) I saw old men, Boomers, millennials and even little kids in leather jackets and white t-shirts; similarly, girls and women ages seven to seventy were rocking poodle skirts, Pink Lady jackets and plastic sunglasses. It was like a PG Rocky Horror. Clearly, Grease as a cultural artifact means something to these people on a sincere level, and not an ironic one, and as a theatre writer and composer myself, it's hard to begrudge the success of something that has actually come to mean something to the world at large.

Okay. Enough of my structural analysis of why Grease does and does not work. Grad school is over, I have my degree. Let's talk about the production. Director and choreographer Barry Ivan's staging, in a licensed production based on the most recent Broadway incarnations (there are about a dozen variant versions of Grease out there, and this is the current most common), has kept the show zipping along, fast and funny and full of energy. Never missing an opportunity for a high-energy dance number, Ivan adds hula-hooping to "We Go Together," rock-star fantasies to "Those Magic Changes," and even burlesque to "Shakin' at the High School Hop." His talented ensemble, including teens from CLO Academy, is clearly having a hell of a time.

Zach Adkins, as Danny Zuko, wisely dials back the caricatured aspects of his archetypal greaser, going less Travolta or James Dean and more subdued. If you imagine Ryan Gosling as Zuko, you've got the idea, only Gosling's rough, thin indie-rock voice can't do the things Adkins does. Kristen Martin's Sandy is fresh-faced and earnest, her Disney-ready voice shining in every solo and ensemble number; it's a shame this current incarnation of the script skimps on her character development compared to one or two of the others, because Martin is clearly capable of a much deeper character than the Broadway Sandy Dumbrowsky. The rest of the greasers and Pink Ladies are mostly on comic relief duty, though each has a chance to shine: Melessie Clark and Alex Prakkenamping up the physical comedy in the innuendo-laden "Mooning," Mei Lu Barnum smiling blithely through Frenchie's ongoing cluelessness, Daniel J. Maldonado nailing the transformation between Doody's musical imcompetence and growing guitar-playing skill. And then there's Jackie Burns as Rizzo, who almost feels like she's in a different show than everyone else (in a good way). She inhabits this thinly-drawn character with a confidence and physicality, as well as a knockout voice, that feels more human than anything else in the play. It probably helps that Rizzo's open relationship with Kenickie (Vince Oddo), which was meant to make her look slutty or disreputable in the old days, now seems like a pretty common "friends with benefits" situation unlikely to raise an eye or call her character into question today.

This being Grease, the show really belongs to the bit players and comic cameos. Andrea Weinzerl, a frequent presence over the past few years in ensemble tracks for Pittsburgh Public's musicals, gets a fantastic showpiece as pushy Type-A Patty Simcox, Sandy's rival for Danny's affection. With a mile-a-minute upbeat jabber straight out of Tim Burton's suburbia satires, and incredible moves in the Act 2 dance contest, Weinzerl definitely proves she's more than a just a chorus girl. Her partner in crime, high school nerd Eugene, is played by Jordan De Leon, and in one of the few really positive changes from the original, this Eugene is more than just the butt of constant nerd jokes and gay jokes- he may come across as stuffy and effete for most of the show, but when he finally gets his turn in the dance contest, he not only proves to be just as good a dancer as the greasers, but (to Patty's dismay) just as much of a horndog. It's not exactly character development, but it's a fun subversion of expectations. Also in the dance sequence, Matt Bogart's recurring cameo as full-time DJ, part-time pedophile Vince Fontaine gets plenty of laughs, though they may be more uncomfortable than they used to be in this #MeToo era.

And don't think I've forgotten Clay Aiken, the big star around whom this production has been marketed. I will fully confess that I had misgivings about Aiken's casting, expecting one of far too many lifeless "ex-superstar comes out in white clothes, sings like they're at a concert and then leaves" put-ins that the role of Teen Angel has been subjected to. Gosh and shucks was I wrong. The Clay Aiken of 2019 is an improbable but winning fusion of Billy Porter's voice and Martin Short's everything else. Making an entrance dressed as Liberace, towering in sequined "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" platform shoes, and mincing wincingly down the stairs towards Frenchie, Clay Aiken has blissfully thrown away any sense of pop-star pride and decorum, and embraced this opportunity to embody a sneering gay-camp nightmare. Towering over the diminutive Barnum thanks to the aforementioned shoes, gasping, scowling and doing double-takes over the glittered-up chorus boys, turning on a dime from patronizing to vicious, all the while singing like an angel... forget Grease, somebody book Clay Aiken a tour as Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror! (I've done almost two decades of Rocky Horror productions, and there are Franks who sing and Franks who pose. Aiken does both.)

So here I am at the end of this complicated, over-long review where I praised everything about a show except the show itself. Did I like it? Yes, I really liked it. Do I like Greaseitself? I don't know- given the number of variables now involved in that statement, it's almost like saying "do you like food?" Would I recommend this show to other people? You bet your sweet pleather-clad ass I would. For all its ups and downs, evolutions and deevolutions over the years, there's still no fifties nostalgia vehicle like it; All Shook Upand Happy Days the Musical can't hold a candle. After almost fifty years, Grease is still the word.

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BWW Review: Pittsburgh CLO's GREASE a Shoo-Be Doo-Wop She-Bop Good Time

BWW Review: Pittsburgh CLO's GREASE a Shoo-Be Doo-Wop She-Bop Good Time

by  Jun. 16, 2019  

BWW Review: Pittsburgh CLO's GREASE a Shoo-Be Doo-Wop She-Bop Good Time

 

"It's got groove; it's got meaning. Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion." For the Pittsburgh CLO, the star-studded cast of Grease rocks the Benedum and sets the tone for a riveting summer season. With Broadway and television actors flooding the stage, the musical has proven to be a shoo-be doo-wop she-bopgood time.

In a way, Grease is the original high school musical. Summer days drift away, and the show opens with the students of Rydell High returning from their summer break. The time is the late 1950s, and societal issues are about to be undertaken by some of these rebellious teenagers. At Rydell, there are two groups of cool kids: the guys being the Burger Palace Boys and the girls being the Pink Ladies.

The Burger Palace Boys are greasers - tall, dark, handsome males wearing leather jackets, tight pants, and slicked-back hair. They are the tough archetypical guys from the 50s, and they're interested in cars, their gang, and of course the Pink Ladies.

Mirroring them are the Pink Ladies. Their group is shaken when new girl Sandy Dumbrowski (Kristen Martin) joins in. Sandy is a transfer student and a goody two shoes, until it's discovered that she has a little more of a wild side; over the summer, Danny Zuko (Zach Adkins) and she had a small but passionate fling. Now interacting with him in his natural environment, will he still be the same Danny as he was in the summer?

Luckily for you, the ensuing two hour journey is filled with familiar tunes like "Greased Lightnin'" and "Beauty School Dropout." Whether this is your first encounter with Grease or you've seen the musical or movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John dozens of times, the cast of the CLO's production makes the show unique.

As it's written, the musical version of Grease features minimal character development, despite touching on themes ranging from gangs to teenage pregnancy (Yes; this show is still appropriate for all audiences). Its glamour and allure is promoted through its cult following and mesmerizing music that have transcended nearly five decades. With that in mind, the leads of the show made their characters unique with the limited material at hand.

Take Betty Rizzo, played by the incomparable Jackie Burns. She is the leader of the Pink Ladies (Regina George of the Plastics, if you will), and she developed subtle, yet memorable mannerisms, like her incessant gum chewing. More than that, Ms. Burns' tenacity makes focusing on anyone else almost impossible when she's on the stage; and when she's singing, forget about it! It's actors like Ms. Burns that make you wish she had significantly more songs to sing.

Zach Adkins, playing the leading Danny Zuko, displays similar effervescence. Like Ms. Burns, Mr. Adkins stuns when he enters the stage and belts out his heartfelt melodies in "Sandy" and "You're the One That I Want." His cool guy persona is flawless - not over-the-top or underwhelming - but the right amount of suave.

Speaking of things being just right, Clay Aiken as Teen Angel gives a lovely rendition of "Beauty School Dropout." He receives layered applause as he struts across the stage in his pink suit for his cameo appearance. He makes the role his own and adds nuance to his comedic character's brief time on stage.

It's unfortunate that his performance, along with the opening number, was marred by sound issues, however; whether it was the orchestra overpowering the truly excellent vocals or muffled microphones making indistinguishable diction, the sound design in the venue left me wanting clarity during a number of scenes in the show.

On the visual side of things, the costume design left for a visually pleasing and vibrant display of color. The dancing was unique, but also showed similarities to the movie, as well as Broadway revivals. In "We Go Together," hula-hoops are used, as was the case in the 1994 revival. To me, these distracted from the performance on stage and left many questions at intermission.

Aside from the hula-hoops for me, what will be remembered is the sheer talent that came from this production of Grease. From Mr. Aiken to Mr. Adkins, Ms. Martin to Ms. Burns, and everyone in between, the cast of this production transformed an American classic into a unique Pittsburgh experience that will become an individualized memory to all who saw.

To see or not to see score: 6/9; Moderately Recommended Show

Photo by: Matt Polk

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