With more than a few f-bombs, American Theater Company takes ‘Grease’ back to its original, working class roots

“We Go Together” — the cast of American Theater Company’s “The Original Grease”

Who knew Danny Zuko hung out at gay-friendly Foster Beach? I always suspected he was hiding something behind that “machismo” exterior.

I kid — but I couldn’t help but smirk listening to “Foster Beach,” the opening tune that predates karaoke favorite “Summer Nights” in The Original Grease. American Theater Company, working with Grease creator Jim Jacobs, has restored the iconic musical back to its original, Chicago-centric 1971 form, filled with f-bombs, gang fighting, puking in punch bowls and public urination.

Think of it as Grease, by way of vintage John Waters. And I loved every moment.

Now, I’m admittedly not a fan of the more well-known musical version, on which the 1978 movie was based. I’ve viewed the movie once or twice, and may have seen the show onstage at some point, but I honestly can’t remember. I do know that the basic plot remains intact, and the shoo-boppin’ score in this version retains only a handful of the tunes in the movie (including “We Go Together,” which here is staged as a rain-soaked group warrior cry) — so bear that in mind. Other than that, I’m not equipped to give a run-down on the differences between the two versions.

What I can tell you is this production kicks ass. It’s funny, real, gritty and full of heart. In fact, funny is an understatement. Looking around me, audience members’ mouths were agog — such as when Alaina Mills as Patty Simcox, while singing a bubbly song about Danny, runs to the back of ATC’s warehouse space, drops her drawers and pees in a Rydell High bathroom toilet. Not only is this completely in the “f*ck you” spirit of this revisited piece, but also director PJ Paparelli’s very clever way of diverting our attention during a scene change.

Clearly, this show isn’t for kiddies.

The Original Grease is brimming with hormones, insecurities, a raging desire to belong and attitude, attitude, attitude. These aren’t some cookie-cutter musical theatre clones; rather, Jacobs, along with his co-creator Warren Casey, has created a gang of street-smart kids from working class homes who know how to have a good time, even if it means a black eye or two.

The young (read: age-appropriate) ensemble is the star here. Sandy (a petite, nearly pre-teen-looking Kelly Davis Wilson) and Danny (Adrian Aguilar) actually have about as much stage time as their Rydell High classmates. Their disfunctional love story is just one of several different hormonally-driven plots. I was particularly taken by Jessie Fisher’s loopy Frenchie, who manages to create a fully-formed character without making her a ditzy cartoon. Jessica Diaz is also a standout as ball-bustin’ Rizzo, especially when she lets the cracks show beneath her steely demeanor.

Some things could be tightened, including the second act which includes more than a few moments that drag (such as a scene in a boiler room, which, according to the director’s notes, was smartly cut in the original production.) And the framing device, setting it up as a 50 year Rydell High School reunion, needs a bit more thought. But this is a milestone production for American Theater Company, and I’d expect a long run.

“The Original Grease” plays through August 21 at the American Theater Company. More info here >

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