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theatre review

Benjamin Camenzuli, Henry Firmston, Matt Magnusson, Jacob Tischler and Dylan S. Wallach in Grease: The Musical.

Grease is the worst.

Sure, I'll happily dance to the Grease Megamix at a wedding for four minutes and 50 seconds, but any more time with Danny, Sandy and the rest of the cardboard caricatures of teenagers who populate Rydell High – no thank you.

The 1971 musical, much remixed itself over the years, is in desperate need of a complete revamp or reinvention – perhaps like the archetypal teens from Archie comics got in the Netflix series Riverdale.

Instead, director and choreographer Josh Prince's new Toronto production of Grease – the first major venture by a welcome new commercial company called Irregular Entertainment – tries to root the musical in its original time and place, excavate something out of it beyond nostalgia for nostalgia.

It's an admirable attempt, but, unfortunately, with a cast that underwhelms and choreography that overwhelms, it only reveals how hollowed out the material is.

Premiering in Chicago in 1971, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's musical lucratively tapped into fifties nostalgia (which, if you think about it, would be the equivalent of tapping into early 2000s nostalgia now) years before Happy Days hit the air. But by most accounts, that first low-budget production also had a certain authentic raunchiness and was rooted in a specific Polish- and Italian-American blue-collar world familiar to the creators.

Some of those rough corners were smoothed out for the show's initial smash run on Broadway that kicked off in 1972, however – and the city of Chicago was rubbed right out for the 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John that moved the action to California.

Home video releases of that film transformed the show into the musical of choice for pre-teen pajama parties for the next generation(s).

This has left subsequent stage productions of Grease in a stylistic bind – having to marry an old script to the new fans and find ways to squeeze in popular, decidedly non-rockabilly tunes written for the movie like Hopelessly Devoted to You and You're the One That I Want.

Prince's production starts off promisingly with a montage of projections taking us through 1950s Chicago – followed by an enjoyable a cappella version of the catchy, but anachronistically groovy title song Barry Gibb wrote for the movie sung by the "greasers."

Likewise, in the first scene at Rydell High, an Uncle Sam poster trying to get kids to enlist in the military hangs on the wall, an indicator of what's expected of these working-class kids. A teacher screens Duck and Cover, the famous animated social guidance film about what to do in the event of nuclear attack. You get a sense of the world these teens are in – and what the non-conformists are rebelling against.

The performances are less rooted in the real, however. Janel Parrish's Sandy and Dylan S. Wallach's Danny are like oil and water in the first big number, Summer Nights; Parrish restrained to the point of blandness, Wallach verging on clown with his over-the-top physicality. They have a pinch more chemistry when they actually get to interact with one another a scene later – but they're fighting an uphill battle with a script that makes them navigate an illogical sequence of break ups and reconciliations.

This Grease's casting feels oddly algorithmic, too – with many of the leads best known for work on the small screen rather than stage, two dimensional acting, bumping up against musical theatre whizbang in the ensemble.

Rizzo, for instance, is played by Katie Findlay, a Canadian actress with an impressive TV resume (The Killing, How To Get Away With Murder). But while she has attitude and a versatile voice that shows off its bluesy colours in There Are Worse Things I Could Do, there's always something awkward about this coolest of the Pink Ladies in terms of stage presence.

That's not uncommon in Prince's production. The choreographed bits are choreographed within an inch of their life, such as the act one finale which features the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies whirling around an amusement park to We Go Together, oversized plush dolls, bearded ladies and funhouse mirrors flying on and off the stage breathlessly, pointlessly. (The hand jive number at the school dance is also frenetic, but in a much more fun way.)

But when the performers stop dancing, it's like the life goes out of them. It's not surprising to flip through Prince's credits and see they are largely for choreography alone (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Shrek: The Musical, the best known).

His physical comedy is occasionally inspired, but the verbal bantering in his production rarely lands – and you may wish there was a skip button to hit and jump to the next song like when you're watching Grease in VHS, DVD or Blu-ray.

Tess Benger as the overachiever cheerleader Patty and Darcy Stewart as Cha Cha DiGregorio were the only actors to really make me laugh through characterization and line delivery alone.

In the end, I couldn't help but think that when it comes to Grease you've got to go big or go home.

Grease (greaseonstage.com) continues at the Winter Garden.

Bat Out of Hell: The Musical is making its North American premiere in Toronto on Saturday. Meat Loaf says the transformation of his iconic album into a stage show has brought him to tears.

The Canadian Press