“Grease” and “Urinetown.” The titles sound yucky, but there’s more to musical revivals than titles tell.
Two productions of award-winning musicals are running parallel to each other and shouldn’t be missed. As different as tight jeans and an old, ragged dress, “Grease” and “Urinetown: The Musical” offer two distinct visions of America. One peers backward through rose-colored glasses at high school life in the 1950s. The other looks forward through cracked lenses into a dark, dry, Hobbesian future. See both and do your own calculations.
Who would have thought “Grease” and “Urinetown: The Musical” would open Durango’s musical season opposite each other? The two works offer a rare chance to sift through the American tendency to romanticize the past and fear the future.
Durango High School’s Thespian Troupe 1096 revisits “Grease,” the popular 1971-78 Broadway-cum-movie favorite. Back in 2006, the high school staged a peppy, bobby-socked interpretation under Mona Wood-Patterson. A decade later, Director Ben Mattson and his creative team, Music Director Tom Kyser, and Choreographer Hattie Miller, have conjured a slightly darker version. But the original nostalgia for what high school was like in the ’50s remains.
FLC’s interpretation of “Urinetown: The Musical,” a triple 2002 Tony-winner, is pure satire. Director Ginny Davis and her creative team, Paula Millar – music, Alyse Neubert – choreography, underscore the role of parody in contemporary musicals. Who would have thought pessimism about the survival of humankind would be the central theme of a successful Broadway musical? Mockery has a bitter, slippery taste, and it seems to suit the spirit of our times.
Still, both local productions are infused with youthful energy, and both move quickly to expected and unexpected endings.
Both sets use a two-tiered construction that accommodates complex choreography and optical identifiers: Rydell High School, a palm-framed prom, or the logo of a corrupt utility company.
Both productions employ small stage bands that thoroughly capture the nature of each musical style: rhythmic rock ’n’ roll or campy cabaret. Thank you for embedding the musicians on stage instead of in the pit.
There’s one interesting crossover: One “Grease” quotation slips into the plot of “Urinetown.” It involves the romantic leads: Danny, the amiable gang-leader from “Grease” (portrayed with energy and charm by Curtis Salinger) and Sandy, the innocent outsider (sung by the talented Sophie Hughes).
The two characters also anchor the story in “Urinetown” with some alterations. Danny has morphed into another leather-jacketed hero, Bobby Strong (the inimitable Ian Noble). Sandy has been transformed into a college-educated daughter, Hope Caldwell (the winning Sarah Grizzard). Check out the costume parallels and the importance of that leather jacket.
Each story evolves differently and with different degrees of darkness. The only shadow in “Grease” is an unexpected pregnancy for Rizzo (confidently portrayed by Jenna Szczech), which conveniently evaporates by the finale. Darkness prevails in “Urinetown” until the heroine proves she has pluck after all.
On the comic side, “Urinetown” has many moments worth a whistling audience response. “Don’t Be the Bunny” is one, straight out of a corporate do-not-playbook. And in “Grease,” the “Mooning” duet by McKenzie Belt as Jan and Athan Garza as Rodger all but brought down the house last Saturday night.
Except for serious sound problems opening weekend for “Grease,” over an uneven amplification, which can be fixed, both productions sail through these two versions of Americana.
“Urinetown” continues at the college only through Saturday. “Grease” will play at the high school this weekend and next, Nov. 10, 11, 16, 17 and 18.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.