by Clark Groome
The sex lives of ‘50s teenagers and those of African-Americans are dealt with in the two shows I saw last week. They are very different. One (“Grease” at the Walnut) would be rated PG-13 were it a movie. The other (“Bootycandy” at the Wilma) is definitely for mature and tolerant audiences only.
“Grease” has become one of those highly popular musicals that seems to appeal to people of all generations. The story of the Rydell High Class of 1959 is about typical teenage issues: being cool, sex, relationships, sex, cars, sex, fitting in, sex and music.
With a book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the show is a lot of fun. When done with energy and intimacy, “Grease” is a great way to spend a couple of hours. The music is reminiscent of the ‘50s yet still remains fresh.
In order for the show to be successful, it needs a hot cast, sexy relationships and believable characters. The “Grease” on view at the Walnut Street Theatre through July 14 has the hot cast and, for the most part, the believable characters. What was lacking was any real heat between the two central characters: Danny Zuko (Matthew Ragas) and Sandy Dumbrowski (Laura Giknis). Their summer romance seems to cool when they get back to school, primarily because Danny wants his friends to believe he’s cooler and a more accomplished lover than he really is. While their relationship ultimately works out, as do several other supporting ones, the lack of any real attraction between Danny and Sandy make the whole affair a tad lightweight.
The cast is energetic and vocally strong (even though the whole affair is so over-amplified that the songs’ words are mostly unintelligible). As usual, Mary Martello, here the English teacher Miss Lynch, was terrific.
Directed by Bruce Lumpkin, the Walnut production started life at The Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, Fla. The physical production, except for Craig Beyrooti’s sound, was impressive. Credit designers Cliff Simon (sets), Lisa Zinni (costumes) and Richard Winkler (lighting) with capturing the look of the ‘50s Rydell High School and its students. Choreographer Michelle Gaudette’s dances were generally quite impressive, although they occasionally bordered on the frenetic.
The Walnut’s “Grease” is fun. I only wish it were quite a bit sexier and a lot less amplified.
For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit walnutstreettheatre.org.
“Bootycandy,” the Wilma Theater’s season-ending production, is going to challenge the sturdiest of theatergoers. It’s a challenge worth meeting.
Playwright Robert O’Hara, who also directed the Wilma production, has written 11 scenes, each one dealing with a different element in the lives of several recurring African-American characters. Most of what is handled, be warned, is sexual in nature. The language is as raw and profane as any you’re ever likely to encounter on a stage.
Sex acts — most of them gay sex acts — are described in great detail. I know several people who found the play vulgar and without any redeeming value. While there were times when I found myself cringing, there were others when the characters’ honesty and humanity was both hilarious and moving.
There’s no question this is X-Rated. There’s no question it’s often heavy handed. There’s also no question that “Bootycandy” in the Wilma’s impressive production (which runs through June 16) can, if you let it, touch your heart and make you care for the characters, regardless of the number of vulgarities they spew or sex acts they describe.
Ross Beschler, Jocelyn Bioh, Phillip James Brannon, Benja Kay Thomas, and Lance Coadie Williams comprise the top-drawer ensemble. All play many characters of varying ages, sexes, and sexual orientations.
Clint Ramos designed the spectacular and clever turntable-driven sets and the often witty costumes. The other designers were Drew Billiau (lighting) and Lindsay Jones (sound). There were a couple of times — particularly in the scene called “Dreamin’ in Church” — when the amplification was so loud that the words were lost.
“Bootycandy,” along with being raw and profane, is also literate, insightful and moving. It’s hard to get through the profanity’s surface noise, but if you can you’ll be surprisingly rewarded.
For tickets, call 215-546-7824 or visit wilmatheater.org.