As a kid I saw Grease at the cine, owned the 45 of “Summer Nights”. A decade later I watched it on videocassette and caught snatches on the telly in subsequent years. None of it made much of an impression. A few mediocre theatrical productions sprinkled in there didn’t help.

One Sunday near the beginning of the pandemic CBS-TV broadcast the sing-along version of the film (bouncing ball to help you follow along, 4K colors dialed up to neon proportions). I figured: why not? Joining my fellow Pacific Time Zone shut-ins seemed like a welcome diversion from the frightful reality outside.

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By the first commercial break, I was enthralled. Grease, I realized, is one of the great musicals, full stop. The iconic songs are masterpieces of pop craft. There’s transgressive absurdity beneath the cornball surface. You can’t take your eyes off John Travolta. You wanna talk choreography, energy? Dig the epic “Born to Hand-Jive”. And Danny and Sandy drive off into space — literally!

No staging can possibly live up to that. But with a strong cast vocally, a couple of clever twists, and smart production design, Musical Theatre West manages a show well worth seeing even if you know that going in.

This is doubly impressive considering that in the week prior to opening the show lost six — count ‘em: six — cast and crew to COVID-19, compelling those left standing to rehearse ‘til 6:30 p.m. before opening night’s 8 o’clock curtain.

But after a superfluous prologue framing the next two hours as a high-school reunion flashback on the Class of ‘59, there came the opening strains of “Grease”, a wonderful bit of Bee Gee’s tunesmithery written for the film, and it seemed everything would be all right. The band was locked in, the cast was singing great, and what the production design lacked in ambition it more than made up for in quiet quality.

Aside from “Grease” and “Summer Nights” — the pivotal number to be to set things in motion, with Monika Peña & Jonah Ho’okano doing a solid Sandy & Danny, plus fantastic backing from the rest of the gang — Act One’s best numbers are “Those Magic Changes” and “Freddy, My Love”, musically dismissible (not to mention completely dispensable plotwise) songs made memorable by Kris Bona’s and Janaya Mahealani Jones’s respective leads. Bona in particular works his four-chord throwaway to exciting effect, with music director Jan Roper milking it for more than it’s worth.

The clearest weakness prior to intermission is C. Wright’s choreography — sometimes oversimplistically literal (do we really need Sandy holding up 10 fingers to tell us “We stayed out ‘til 10 o’clock”? Half the lines get that treatment), sometimes strangely awkward (“Greased Lightnin’” comes to feel interminable), almost always notably static. Perhaps casting the best mesh of voices — to obvious success every damn time there are backing vocals — led to a shortcoming in overall dancing ability, and so Wright and director Snehal Desai compensated via simplicity?

The best movement elements in Act One don’t come with songs. As Patty Simcox, Devan Watring is amusing enough as soon as she opens her mouth but absurdly hilarious when she cartwheels in place. And she’s at the center of things a few minutes later when an old-timey Rydell High cheerleading practice takes an anachronistic turn into a full-blown funky step routine. So hella clever/fun that even this spoiler won’t ruin it.

Things loosen up a bit after intermission. The burst of costume color alone helps Act Two opener “Shakin’ at the High School Hop”. Then comes “Born to Hand-Jive”, which sends the energy to new heights (even if the band hits the ceiling prematurely — they need more horns), while simple, smart acting and blocking shifts our focus from couple to couple as effectively as any spotlight could, except better for never losing the whole.

That’s a tough act to follow, made tougher by the fact that it’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, written expressly to show off Olivia Newton-John’s clarion pipes. But it’s no problem for Janaya Mahealani Jones, whose command is such that we don’t need anything else onstage to distract us.

Now we must speak of Darius Rose and his/her/their (even the program can’t keep it straight (no pun intended (okay, maybe a little))) double drag turn as Rydell’s Miss Lynch and Frenchy’s guardian angel. You might think Lynch was written as a drag role, so natural is the fit when Rose appears on stage. If the droll feyness he/she/they show in Act One were all there was to it, fine. But not only does Rose (whom you may know better as Jackie Cox from RuPaul’s Drag Race) get to do more with Lynch in Act Two, but from literally the first word of the intro to “Beauty School Dropout” (“Girrrl…”), Rose fucking destroys. Desai and Roper know a good thing when they’ve got it, and they drag the song out for as long as they dare, including a gospel rave-up of a coda and a reprise. We love every delightful second.

Perhaps inevitably, the show flags from here. Part of the problem is plot — whoever decided to add a car race in the film knew a thing or two about pacing — and of the remaining six numbers, two are reprises (including a finale that brings nothing new to the table), and two are instantly forgettable. Of the rest, a near complete lack of visuals handicaps Isa Briones’s strong “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” (three numbers in a half-hour by more-or-less static singers with basically nothing else happening on stage are two too many); and “You’re the One That I Want” is the one song the band doesn’t get right, burying what should be a tight bass-centric groove in muddy, nebulous orchestration.

Nonetheless, the net result makes this Grease more than worth seeing. It’s not just a nostalgia trip — Grease is the word.

Grease at Musical Theatre West

The show runs through July 24.

Times: Fri. – 8 pm, Sat – 2 pm & 8 pm, Sun. – 1pm

Cost: starting at $20

Details: (562) 856-1999, musical.org

Venue: Carpenter Performing Arts Center (6200 W. Atherton, Long Beach)

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