Book, Music & Lyrics: Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Director: David Gilmore
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The original production of Grease in Chicago in 1971 was a rather starker affair than audiences are used to today. As it evolved, and especially after the 1978 film version, which made several changes to the song list some of which filtered back into the stage show, Grease became less hard-hitting, though still with some adult themes.
Danny and Sandy meet over the summer vacation and spend an idyllic few months on the beach, both understanding that what they have is rather lovely but destined to end as they return to their different high schools. Circumstances conspire, however, to send them to the same high school, Rydell High, where they meet again. However, in school Danny is the uber cool leader of the teen gang, The T-Birds. Despite her good-girl persona, Sandy is inducted into the Pink Ladies, although she never quite fits in and becomes something of a figure of fun, especially to streetwise Rizzo.
A combination of bad luck and peer pressure sees Danny and Sandy pushed apart as each settles back into their assigned rôles – until one succumbs to that peer pressure and changes. On the way, we see the other members of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies deal with their own problems – a disastrous decision to quit school for Frenchie, a pregnancy scare for Kenickie and Rizzo – so that by the end of the school year and of the show, the two gangs have neatly paired up and are set for college and adult life.
There can be no doubt that Grease is a great feelgood experience – the toe-tapping songs are familiar and welcoming with audience members singing along. It’s bright and brash – Terry Parsons’ set is filled with garish colour from neon tubes allowing plenty of space for the big choreographed numbers.
The members of the young cast throw themselves into the high-energy numbers with gusto. And there are the more thoughtful numbers – Totally Devoted to You, Sandy, There Are Worse Things I Could Do – that provide some relief from the more lively ones and serve to give our main protagonists more depth of character. But somehow the whole doesn’t quite gel and some of the grittier subplots never get out of the starting blocks – an obvious example being the T-Birds’ rumble with a rival gang after Danny dances with their leader’s girl which somehow gets forgotten in the glitz of the Teen Angel segment.
Tom Parker of The Wanted makes his theatrical début as a competent Danny. He looks the part and brings some humour to it, but it is safe to say he is rather more comfortable dancing and delivering a song than delivering lines. Danielle Hope, erstwhile winner of TV’s Over the Rainbow, brings the right amount of sweetness to the increasingly bewildered Sandy, never quite straying into saccharine territory. Louisa Lytton’s Rizzo is full of attitude and sass, though could maybe be even more edgy. Her attack on Sandy in There Are Worse Things I Could Do is indeed a powerful moment.
The rest of the ensemble cast do a good job with their inherently two-dimensional characters, with elements of humour from Ryan Heenan’s Doody, Rosanna Harris’ Jan, Oliver Jacobson’s Roger, and especially, Rhiannon Chesterman’s rather poignant Frenchie.
Teen Angel – the imaginary advisor to Frenchie – is a great cameo rôle filled in this case by Jimmy Osmond. Osmond doesn’t take himself at all seriously, bringing outrageous levels of campness to his performance and stopping the show with Beauty School Dropout, putting any lingering memories of the squeaky Long Haired Lover from Liverpool firmly to bed with his warm and powerful voice.
David Gilmore’s direction, supported by the choreography of Arlene Phillips, ensures one has barely time to catch breath as the show flies along, but it can’t quite paper over the cracks that the sanitisation of the original has glossed over.
Grease remains the archetypal audience-pleaser – it was voted the all-time best musical for Channel 4 and today’s audience was full of smiles and humming the catchy songs after the performance – but one can’t help feeling there are depths just waiting to be exploited.
Runs until 3 June 2017 and on tour | Image: Paul Coltas