Grease – Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Reviewer: Kerrie Walters

Book, Music, and Lyrics: Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey

Director: Nikolai Foster

Grease is a timeless classic piece of musical theatre, made famous by the iconic 1978 movie starring John Travolta and the late Olivia Newton-John. While it undoubtedly has some classic moments, you could be forgiven for thinking that Grease feels a little bit vanilla in the modern musical theatre landscape.

The narrative follows Sandy and Danny’s high school romance as they navigate their final year at Rydell High, and inevitably draws comparisons to the beloved film. Director Nikolai Foster has infused the stage adaptation with a darker, grittier atmosphere than the movie. This version presents a fresh take on the well-known story, with the running order and character development modified. This chopping of the material has allowed for a much faster-paced show and there has been a deliberate flirting with the nostalgia that the source material provides. While the production retains iconic numbers such as Grease Is The Word, Foster has incorporated more obscure additions like the Tattoo Song and the iconic 1950s harmonies such as Raining On Prom Night, infusing the show with nostalgia.It’s important to note that this adaptation remains true to its original form and may not always cater to modern audience’s tastes. But, on some level, the production does attempt to address the problematic nature of the male characters’ womanizing behaviour, particularly Kenickie and Danny’s predatory attitudes. They come across as slimy and Danny’s leching over the various female characters feels disappointing. Far from rooting for them to get together, there is a definite sense that Sandy could do better.

Marley Fenton is excellent as Danny, his relaxed demeanour brings an effortless coolness that Travolta couldn’t achieve in the film. Fenton’s chemistry with Hope Dawe, who makes her professional debut as Sandy is excellent. It is relaxed, yet urgent and he can play with the juxtaposition of the characters’ statuses within the school and his secret yearning for Sandy in every scene. Dawe plays Sandy in a much more assertive way than Olivia Newton-John: this Sandy has a strong moral core and is willing to stand by her beliefs, but equally, there is a real sense that she might engage in a catfight when she confronts Rizzo (Imogen Malone) when she catches her making fun during Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee. Arguably the most well-rounded female character in the show, Malone does an excellent job as Rizzo. She is salty and sly, but equally brings a vulnerability that is lacking in the movie version. She has a fizzing sexual chemistry with Kenickie (George Michaelides) which pulls focus in every scene. Kenickie enjoys an expanded track in this version, Greased Lightning has been returned to be sung by him as he buys the junk car. Michaelides steals the show with his brooding and intense performance. He is aggressive and at times, such as the meet-up, with his chain-wrapped knuckles, genuinely threatening. Yet despite the feeling that Kenickie could resort to violence at any moment, Michaelides charms the audience with his velvety vocals and slick dance moves. Michaelides very much feels like the nucleus of the show’s energy, as he interacts with every cast member.

The ensemble is an incredible band of triple-threat performers who work as one living organism. With an impressive array of lifts, duets and acrobatics, they do an excellent job of setting the pace and tone of the show. The choreography by Arlene Phillips adds a tough and edgy quality to the performance, emphasising the characters’ darker aspects and interactions. The choreography seamlessly moves the show along as characters hook and unhook trucks as part of their routines. Colin Richmond’s metallic, semi-scholastic set, consists of metal staircases and iconic school gym equipment flanking the neon projector portal at the back of the stage. Coupled with Ben Cracknell’s high-impact neon lighting design this show is a slick, well-oiled machine. The seamless overlapping of the creative and technical elements creates a visually stunning and immersive experience for the audience.

Unfortunately, on press night there were a few technical misfires: Danny was left in the dark for an uncomfortable amount of time whilst the follow-spot got organised and the track for Sandy came in too quickly. Whilst Fenton managed it professionally, the start of the song sounded like he was running for a bus; thankfully his excellent timing and smooth vocals saved the moment. There were a couple of odd occasions throughout where a random light would suddenly jerk on or off, whether this is the result of a miscall or a trigger-happy technician remains to be seen but thankfully these technical blips were few and didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the show.

Grease is a rite of passage that should be experienced at least once by any budding musical theatre fan. This production holds a gravitas that some of its previous incarnations just haven’t been able to obtain thanks in large part to the collaborative energy of the on-stage cast, Foster’s tight direction and a penchant for the visual spectacle. This show is a safe investment and a great night out. Grab your tickets now before it dances out of town!

Runs until 18 May 2024 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

An excellent night out

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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