Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Grease is back in the West End, another musical hoping to sell tickets on the launch pad of a television talent series being used to cast its leads. It is a reworking by David Gilmore of the production which first opened in London in 1993 and is now back for the fifth time. I was probably alone among the audience in that I had never before seen either this 1972 musical or the 1978 movie that was based on it, so I can't compare the television audience's choice of leads with any of their predecessors.
Though, I came to it near virgin, I admit to having seen a few Travolta/Newton-John clips on television, moments of some other Hollywood star in a student production and snatches of the reality casting shows. Certainly most of the numbers sounded familiar, but then they are a pastiche of the rock and roll and pop of the 1950s, when this High School tale is set, which I knew the first time round. The story, was new to me, beyond the idea of a school romance. In fact, I found, it barely has a plot: not even 'boy meets girl - boy loses girl - boy gets girl again' - for this teenage pair have already met and he doesn't so much lose her as ignores her when with his mates and chatting up other chicks.
Hero Danny Zuko (Danny Bayne) and his mates centre their lives around fast cars and dreams of cars, flaunting their teenage masculinity in Elvis gyrations and trying to make-out with girls. The girls aren't so very different either, though heroine Sandy Dumrowski (Susan McFadden) starts of a comparative innocent; like the movie image of actress Sandra Dee with which one of the numbers mocks her:
Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity
Won't go to bed till I'm legally wed, .
Elvis, let me be, keep that pelvis far from me
Not that I would have know that from the show -- I found the lyrics on the web. I did get the gist of the number when it first sung by Jayde Westaby, who gives a strong performance as Rizzo, the fast living girl who gets pregnant by second male lead Kenickie (Sean Mulligan). At least, I recognized the film star's name and a fraction more that was intelligible. That is more than can be said for most of the songs, especially those belted out by the whole company. It may just have been over-amplification or poor balance. I would expect a couple of weeks of previews to sort them out, but I noticed that mics were audibly turned down a few words into some of the dialogue scenes, so even the sound engineers realised some adjustment was needed when it was most obvious. Perhaps an extra rush of first-night adrenaline gave the cast more volume than usual and threw things, though even that could not entirely explain the harsh sounds made by McFadden in 'Hopelessly Devoted to You,' which is a quieter number. I know she is supposed to be mournful, but really!
For those, probably most of the audience, who know the songs backwards, audibility may not matter, and the rest of us can guess what they are about and just enjoy the music which except, for a few quieter numbers, is delivered accompanied by Arlene Phillips' vigorous choreography. This is an extremely well drilled company and dazzling to watch, with flashing lights and neon to emphasis the beat. Neither book, or production given them any opportunity to show much character development. The brightly coloured, stylized setting gives a glamour real life '50s lacked, for this is show-biz romance, and it is a cartoon world with a exaggerated geek and a Monroe imitation in a parody of the 1950s but despite all those teenagers trying to be themselves it not easy to identify individuals.
The television reality-show made the point that for Danny and Sandy they needed personalities that could head the show and this the reality show winners don't provide. They do a splendid job as part of a team effort, but they show no particular charisma, nor are they helped by any choreography or business to make their characters stand out as special.
Grease has the feel of a show that began as a series of numbers rather than with a story and this production emphasises that with its band above the stage tracking in on a scaffold and lighting that uses pop-concert-like effects. There is even an explosion of fireworks to finish off 'Greased Lightning,' a number celebrating Danny's dream car, its beat up paintwork transformed to a vision in silver and diamante. One of the effects that designer Terry Parsons provides in a succession of bright stage pictures peopled by Andreane Neofitou's colourful costumes. They reach their peak in 'Beauty School Drop Out.' I had no idea what was going on with a camp silver-suited radio DJ (Jason Capewell) and silver clad girls in mortar boards cavort among neon clouds. I suppose it was something to do with graduation but then why the title? However, it is totally fanciful and looks wonderful.
Despite the energy of the dancing and the gyrating pelvises this seemed a remarkably un-sexy show, much more apple-pie than the (unheard) lyrics and some of the dialogue suggest. It would be interesting to see it present as a savagely earthy satire rather than as fantasy-land. But for an audience looking for escapism, familiarity and a show that makes no demands (except upon the eardrums), it could well fit the bill.
It may well be that, like The Rocky Horror Show, it has its own cult following - some of them seemed to be there on the first night. Its television promotion will attract an audience who are going for a good night out and - because they intend to enjoy themselves - they will have one, but I don't think I'll be going to see it twice.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton