Grease – Dominion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Book, Music and Lyrics: Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey

Director: Nikolai Foster

Grease is one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, beloved even by those who claim they don’t like musicals. Since the success of the 1978 film, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s stage musical has seen numerous modifications to reflect the changes introduced for the big screen.

This new revival attempts, in part, to return the stage musical to its original roots. And so this story of 1950s “greaser” Danny Zucco meeting nice girl Sandy Dumbrowski over the summer break, only to find that they now both attend the same high school and must struggle with existing in two very different social circles, has a darker, more brooding edge than many post-movie revivals have.

Unfortunately, this also makes the show, especially in the first act, drag spectacularly slowly. This production is less Greased Lightning, more a clapped out jalopy. Scenes setting up tensions between the boys’ gang (the Burger Palace Boys, reverting back from the movie’s T-Birds) and the girls’ Pink Ladies feel like they go on for ever.

Matters aren’t helped by a general lack of chemistry between the leads. Both Dan Partridge’s Danny and Olivia Moore’s Sandy struggle to make their presence felt in their respective friend group, and in the few moments where they actually interact with each other there’s precious little indication that they can bear to be in each other’s company, much less have a romantic connection.

This does at least give an opportunity for the spotlight to be thrust open the show’s secondary female lead, with Jocasta Almgill giving a spirited turn as Betty Rizzo that at times threatens to give her character more dimensionality than the script, or the direction, believes she should have.

Against such blandness from the lead roles, Mary Moore’s Jan and Noah Harrison’s Roger shine in comparison. Their duet together, Mooning, is the show’s weakest number musically, but the chemistry between the pair is electrifying.

Act II benefits from a glut of musical numbers and so, for a while, the pace picks up. Peter Andre, whose role as DJ Vince Fontaine covers for several scene changes, gets two opportunities to descend from his booth and interact with the cast. First as the host of the hand jive contest at the school dance, and later as Teen Angel in the dream sequences of Beauty School Dropout, Andre’s performance combines a lightly self-aware aspect with a general sense of fun that feels lacking elsewhere. Unfortunately his tendency to vocally drop off at the end of each line curbs a lot of the humour in Jacobs and Casey’s lyrics.

Similarly trying, but failing, to impress is Arlene Phillips’ choreography, which often feels underpowered. Colin Richmond’s scenic and costume designs also struggle to make an impact, and in some cases actually distract from proceedings. In the aforementioned Beauty School Dropout, for example, Eloise Davis’s Frenchy, who should be the focus of the number, disappears because her otherwise distinctive all-pink outfit gets lost among an ensemble all wearing exactly the same shade.

At least musical director Dan Glover’s eight-piece band do justice to the musical’s score. Foster opts to include nearly all the songs from the original musical as well as those created for the film, and while that provides many touches of familiarity to the audience, it also adds quite a heft to the running time.

That choice also has some narrative problems; Moore’s Hopelessly Devoted To You feels inserted not at a narratively driven point, but rather at the last possible moment; similarly, a date between Danny and Sandy, who up to this point have barely said a civil word to each other, at a drive-in cinema feels injected purely so that Partridge can sing Sandy.

It’s a shame, because there is some valour in the attempt to preserve the original stage production of Grease, rather than it becoming a restaging of the film. Perhaps such an attempt would work better in a smaller venue than the Dominion Theatre’s enormous stage, which is not best suited to moments of introspection or intimate tension.

But as it is, this slow and dull production of Grease is very much not The One That I Want.

Continues until 29 October 2022

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Slow, dull revival

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