Not Travolta’s Rydell High: ATC Reclaims “Grease” for Chicago

It’s fall of 1959 and the school year has just begun on Chicago’s northwest side.

Leaves are falling, the weather is unpredictable; it’s liable to rain any minute on the senior class at Rydell High. In the American Theatre Company’s latest production, “The Original Grease,” it does.

The musical was made famous on Broadway and by the 1978 film, but the production originally mounted at the Old Kingston Mines Theatre in Chicago in 1971. For this production, ATC combined early drafts with later revisions.

Purportedly R-Rated, ATC’s 2-and-a-half-hour version of “Grease” is not the departure the hype made it out to be. Sure, there are F-bombs aplenty and some period-appropriate racial slurs, but other than that, the production is pretty PG-13.

The most important difference is director PJ Paparelli’s reclamation of the book for Chicago. The audience was delighted by references to places such as Foster Beach and Superdawg that brought the production home.

Walt Spangler’s environmental set transformed the ATC into Rydell High’s auto shop. A rusted orange ’51 Ford played Kenickie’s fixer-upper, Greased Lightning, and a Burger Palace sign and takeout window starred at stage left. Real water rained onto the cast at the end of Act I.

About half the songs from familiar versions of “Grease” remained, while compositions from the original were added. “Mooning” becomes a hilarious proposition to neck in the forest preserve and Alaina Mill’s Patty Simcox gets a solo that finds the cheerleader pining for Danny Zuko while going pee.

The antics of the Burger Palace Boys were a highlight. Adrian Aguilar’s Danny Zuko and his gang not only sing catchy arrangements thanks to music director Roberta Duchak, but also engage in ridiculous rumbles and laughable loitering.

Where the production falls is in plot. The ATC’s “Grease” finds Danny and Sandy lacking the bond that would convert good girl to greaser. Danny jilts Kelly Davis Wilson’s Sandy in favor of Patty Simcox, only taking notice of Sandy at the end of the play.

Lacking plot aside, “The Original Grease” is a fresh look at a recent classic and a fun way to spend an evening. While bringing kids under age 13 may not be advisable, it would be a great parent-teen outing.

“The Original Grease” runs through June 26. Tickets are $45-50, call 773-409-4125 or visit atcweb.org.