Book, Music and Lyrics: Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
The 1978 film of Grease is one of the most-loved movie musicals of all time, but its inspiration, the 1971 Broadway show, is a lesser-known predecessor. Revived by Nikolai Foster for a Christmas season at Curve, the show is taken back to its original Broadway roots, and in doing so succeeds as a fresh and dynamic production in its own right.
The plot is uncomplicated. In 1959, good girl Sandy Dumbrowski spends an idyllic summer with bad boy Danny Zuko before beginning their senior year of high school. Come September, Danny’s need to preserve his street cred causes him to abandon Sandy, who has just started at the school; but with the help of the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies, the warring couple is reunited in time for the mega-mix finale.
The pressure on any stage production of Grease is considerable: the audience knows the songs, the jokes, even the film actors’ vocal tics. A couple of pacing issues in this production, particularly in the group scenes, mean several jokes don’t quite land, but equally director Nikolai Foster inserts his own comedic touches, notably for the ditsy Jan and her Catholic beau Roger. There is the odd accent wobble and drop in diction, but these are more than outweighed by the otherwise exceptional quality of the performances.
In a hard-working ensemble, Justin Thomas stands out for his eye-catching execution of Nick Winston’s athletic choreography. There is excellent work across the supporting roles, notably Max Jorquera as the cocky Sonny, Sophie Isaacs as the big-hearted Frenchie, and Nathanael Landskroner making an impressive professional debut as the soulful Doody. Jonny Fines commands the stage as car-obsessed Kenickie and makes fine work of Greased Lightning, while Djalenga Scott is a spiky but sympathetic Rizzo, with a mature vocal quality that lends real power to There Are Worst Things I Could Do.
As the two leads, Jessica Paul and Dex Lee are saddled with two rather unlikable characters: Sandy is judgmental and whiny, Danny is rude and flaky, and one wonders just how the pair managed to put up with each other for an entire summer. But perhaps that is Foster’s point: there is a palpable sense of growing up in his production, of young people hovering between adolescence and adulthood, and one of the production’s strengths is that Sandy’s transformation is clearly for herself, not for Danny as in the film. It’s a far more ethical message to send to the young people in the audience, and Paul and Lee grab their roles with both hands. What they lack in chemistry they make up for in their superb vocals, and both do well to sidestep the shadows of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta.
The production design is hugely impressive. Rarely has the height and width of Curve’s main stage been used so well, and Colin Richmond’s set blends versatility with a tongue-in-cheek 1950s aesthetic. Guy Hoare’s lighting is beautifully detailed and does an excellent job of pulling the audience’s focus in such a vast space, while the onstage band is led flawlessly by musical director Neil MacDonald.
With the film doubtless scheduled for our television screens this Christmas, Curve’s production is an entirely different beast. It’s a real feat of theatrical excellence, a reinvented and reinvigorated celebration of one of the greatest musicals of all time.
Runs until 14 January 2017| Image: Manuel Harlan