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Grease, still entertaining at Paper Mill Playhouse

Danny Zuko (Bobby Conte Thornton) and Sandy Dumbrowski (Taylor Louderman), front, lead an enthusiastic cast in Paper Mill Playhouse's energetic production of 1950s musical Grease
Danny Zuko (Bobby Conte Thornton) and Sandy Dumbrowski (Taylor Louderman), front, lead an enthusiastic cast in Paper Mill Playhouse's energetic production of 1950s musical Grease
Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Paper Mill Playhouse

By Bob & Sandy Nesoff
Members: North American Travel Journalists Association

American Society of Journalists and Authors

As a general rule journalists reviewing shows never mention what other reviewers/critics have written. After all, most reviews are subjective rather than objective and only express that individual’s point of view.

A general rule but not always.

Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse is closing its season with a production of “Grease,” the rollicking retelling of 1950s music and dance centered in mythical Rydell High. The show and movie (1978) were meant to be a tribute to music, dance and fun of the greaser days of the 1950s.

The (Bergen) Record’s review chose instead to take it to task for not addressing racial issues and other social problems of the day. That’s too bad because no one in the multi-cultural audience would have agreed as evidenced by the continuous applause and the standing ovation given at the final curtain.

The truth of the matter is that in the 1950s there was little of the integration we have today…and the current ethos is for the better. That didn’t stop Paper Mill from casting Telly Leung as “Teen Angel” in a dream sequence. There was no need to point out that he wasn’t “…the same as the other kids…” His voice and talent overshadowed anything else and the racial component was low key, as it should have been.

The cast did not contain names such as John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Eve Arden or Sid Caesar. What it did have was a cast of lively and very talented performers who could have easily passed for the characters they were portraying. They all took to the roles and gave a full-throttle performance that had the audience snapping fingers and tapping feet in time with the songs and music.

If anyone was missed from previous incarnations it would have been Arden and Caesar, two performers impossible to recreate. But that was mitigated by the fact that the characters played roles secondary to the performance.

The songs were there, the music was there and the dances, all to the familiar beat of a sadly bygone era were present. If there were thoughts of previous productions on the Broadway stage or Hollywood movies, they were dispelled when the cast launched into an energetic rendition of “Hand Jive,” bringing the audience into the moment with them.

Bobby Conte Thornton and Taylor Louderman were excellent choices for the star-crossed lovers, Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski. OK, they weren’t Travolta and Newton-John but no one noticed and, more importantly, no one cared. Their talent carried the performances.

Morgan Weed was well cast as Betty Rizzo, the pushy and-shockingly sexually active-female protagonist. In the 50s a lot of kids were “doing it” but it was only whispered. So if the Record wanted a social issue here, this was it. And it was resolved in a decent manner.

The cast, as with all Paper Mill productions, is highly professional. Louderman starred recently on Broadway in “Bring it on: The Musical; Thornton made his mark in regional productions of Les Miz; Leung, in addition to Broadway, has appeared on TV in “Glee.”

Interestingly, Weed is a past winner of Paper Mill’s “Rising Star” award for up and coming performers. Rising Star is considered the equivalent of the Tony Award for a New Jersey theater student.

Grease will be performed eight times a week, Wednesday through Sunday until June 29. Show times are Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Friday at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $27 to $98, considerably less than Broadway.

Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at (973) 376-4343 or online at Groups of 10 or more can receive up to a 40% discount and should call for group sales at (973) 315-1680. College students can order $20 rush tickets over the phone or at the box office on performance day.

If you like to plan in advance, Paper Mill’s 2014-15 season will present Can-Can; Elf; Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; and Ever After.

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