SALT LAKE CITY — From the moment “K’nicklaus”(aka Clarence Strohn) took the stage to introduce the show and welcome the audience to Greece is the Word at The Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City, I knew this performance would be different. It was clear that the audience was full of a wide range of theatre-goers, from repeat-attenders who bantered with the actors on-stage with familiarity and ease, to the newbies like me who had never been to a show at The OBT before. The actors seemed to revel in the interplay with the audience, the more outrageous the comments. (This is the home of the long-running improve comedy troupe Laughing Stock, after all.) After the requisite audience-participation tutorial (cheer for the hero, boo for the villain, etc.) we were ready to begin.
Greece is the Word is a mash up parody of the classical musical Grease and the Greek gods as found on Mount Olympus (or in Percy Jackson, The Lightening Thief to appeal to the junior high school kids in the audience). The parallels were clever: Danny Zuko became “Dino,” played by R. Jacob Miskimins, Sandy Dumbrowski became “Sandea” played by Sunny Simkins (who was also the musical director for the production), Kenickie turned into “K’nicklaus,” played by the aforementioned Strohn, and so on. The storyline follows the basic plot of the original Grease, with twists introduced by Hera (Amy Asay) and Zeus (Eric Jensen, who also served as playwright) who dwell atop Mount Olympus and descend periodically to “play with the mortals.” The characters in the show are split into roughly four groups: the Thunder Gods of K’nicklaus, Dino, Potzimus (Rob MacArthur) and Xenon (cast as Cooper Maestas, but played by the male understudy Austinn Jensen the night I saw it); the Pink Ladies led by Riziculous (Hope Hartman), Mardea (Shakai Kinmont) and Frenchious (April Tritchler) who are recognizable by their pink scarves tied around their necks in deference to the original material. Into this group comes Sandea, who met Dino over the summer and sparked their “Grecian Nights” summer romance. A group of Spartans complicate the plot (they seemed to be a combination of the Geeks/Nerds and the Jocks at the school), led by Eugean (Jeremiah Clark) with Concusseon (John Baker), and Gymnausea (Erin Orr) as his trusty sidekicks.
Complicating matters is a group of interloping Italians who come to conquer the Greeks, or at least stick around long enough to win the Dionysian Festival and eat all that great Greek food. In a nod to the current pop-culture train-wreck Jersey Shore, the Italians are named Max ‘The Saturation’ Maximus (Monte Garcia), with Schnooky (Amanda Gibson), and Herpia (Jenifer Halliday) along as his trampy groupies. The plot is full of junior high school humor, bad puns, sight gags and even more puns. If you know the musical Grease at all, and have at basic smattering of knowledge of Greek mythology, it wasn’t too hard to follow along, although one or two of the jokes seemed to fall into cricket-chirp-land. (“Sophocles, anyone? Anyone?”)
Sunny Simkins and R Jacob Miskimins were the strongest of the cast vocally. Their duet “Grecian Nights” set the bar pretty high for the rest of the cast and the duration of the show. On a side note, Miskimins was most hilarious and at ease in the dance numbers. He seems to have an innate sense of rhythm and a grasp of physical humor that translates well onstage. Eric Jensen has clever rewritten the lyrics to fit the parody, and the ones I heard were funny and got a lot of laughs. Unfortunately, I missed many of the lyrics due to a general lack of enunciation, the worst case being Hera’s section of the “Drama School Dropout” number featuring Elvis. I was frustrated because I wanted to hear the lyrics so I could enjoy the jokes, but only heard about one-third of what was sung. The choreography (from Clarissa Armstrong) was simple, cute, and fit well with the 1950’s girl back up group type feel of the musical numbers.
One aspect of the story that didn’t quite work for me was the character of Concusseon. His ongoing gag was the he’d trip and fall at every entrance, but Baker never quite got it right. The gag always looked slightly self-conscious and awkward, but not in the way that it was meant to. Zeus and Hera on Mount Olympus provided ongoing commentary and banter that was mostly funny, but occasionally felt a little self-indulgent. The funniest moment they had was when Hera almost fell off the stage and Zeus threw in a series of one line zingers one after another to cover. Overall, I got the feeling that this is a new script, in front of an audience for only the second time, and that the show was still finding its pace and rhythm. Give this group another few performances to really find out what plays well in front of the audience and it will tighten up and roll along nicely.
The stage is quite small, the sets were kept at a minimum (although the set change getting the Trojan Horse onstage was a little overlong), and the costumes seemed almost to come out of a child’s dress up box, but all the elements fit together well. The overall effect was a feeling that this show was a combination of an LDS ward roadshow, Boy Scout Camp skit and a bunch of friends getting together to put on a show because they love theatre so much that they would do it even if they never got a paycheck for it. And it is clear that this cast and the director, Eric B. Armstrong, indeed love the art form.
So go see Greece is the Word, but make sure you bring along the right set of expectations. Expect to laugh, to groan, to smile, to sing along maybe, to cheer for the hero and to boo at the villain. Greece is the Word is not earth-shattering, ground-breaking theatre, but it never tries to be. It will never win a Tony award, or anything else prestigious or high-brow, unless you count the hearts of their apparently devoted following. And by the look of the nearly sold out house on this opening weekend, this theatre group has found a solid niche in the theatre community here in Utah.