I know you’ll think we’ve led very sheltered lives but neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have ever seen the film Grease; nor had we seen the stage show until last night. Of course, the songs are firmly embedded in our culture and everyone knows them backwards. But it’s always interesting to see how songs from a musical fit into the context of the musical itself – often this gives them a greater depth or a hidden agenda; for example, when we saw Sweet Charity a couple of years ago, Big Spender and Rhythm of Life were huge eye-openers.
And so it is with Grease. Think of the really big hits that came out as a result of the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John combination. “You’re the One that I Want” to me sounds like the start of a relationship and therefore I thought would be towards the beginning of the show. “Summer Nights” looks back at good times which suggested to me it would be at the end. Wrong! It’s the other way round. “Grease is the Word” very entertainingly sets the scene to introduce the characters at Rydell High, and also to place the story in its era (“we take the pressure and we throw away conventionality – belongs to yesterday”), and as for “Hopelessly Devoted to You” – we’ll return to that later.
Basically there are two reviews to do here – one of this production, and one of the musical itself. Production first. It’s absolutely brilliant. The set is colourful and versatile, serving the songs and the performers without getting in the way. The costumes and the props are all spot-on. The lighting is strong; it enhances the performances, encourages the excitement and even helps communicate the story and the characterisation. There are splendid effects like the Greased Lightning car with its fiery exhaust and the front of stage pyrotechnics – not over-used, but really well integrated. The whole staging and performance of the “Greased Lightning” number was superb, incidentally.
And the band? They are amazing. They get their moment of glory in a kind of overture and a couple of times during the show but mostly they are tucked away at the top of the stage behind the scenery. Full of drive, they really rock. Call me an old fuddy-duddy but one of my pet hates in the staging of modern musicals is over-amplification. For me, the amplification was just right. If I’m honest, I thought that in some of the non-musical scenes a few of the characters spoke just a little quietly – but not enough to be a problem.
What about the dancing? First-rate. Arlene Phillips’ original choreography is snappy, demanding, energetic and very fast, and perfectly blends late 1950s style with the kind of stuff we like to see in the 21st century; and it is performed with an amazing sense of unity by the entire, hugely likeable, cast. Everyone’s in perfect time; cheeky, sassy, superbly controlled and accurate, visually and orally it really is a feast for all the senses.
As a true ensemble piece, it’s hard to pick out individual performances; but I will anyway. Danny Bayne plays his namesake Danny Zuko, and if you can’t bring back a 24 year old John Travolta to play the part, I don’t see how you could do better than Mr Bayne. He gives us a cunning combination of cool and weasel, and with a superb singing voice and he’s an incredible dancer. Carina Gillespie is his Sandy; stunning good looks and very convincing as the demure girl surrounded by, let’s say, more experienced types. And she can certainly sell a song; they worked together extremely well.
The supporting gang member roles are also really well performed. Ricky Rojas as Kenickie was particularly good, full of attitude and cool but with a surprising vulnerability when it comes to the crunch. I also loved Kate Somerset How as Rizzo, a right bitch in her confrontations with Sandy and flighty as a hummingbird when performing multi-dalliance with the guys. On the kookie side, the partnership of Laura Wilson as Jan and David O’Reilly as Roger (not Derek Andrews as it says in the programme) were great fun and their emerging togetherness was strangely heart-warming as it shows you don’t have to conform to classic cool/sexy to have a successful relationship.
I also liked the rather seedy DJ Vince Fontaine, played by Stuart Reid (not Jason Capewell as it says in the programme – really if you’re charging £6 for a programme the cast list should be accurate, all it needs is an insert saying at this performance the role will be played by X – it’s not even as though these were understudies) and the Teen Angel was played by X-Factor’s Rhydian Roberts, a bubble of camp glistening in white sparkles; this “guest star” role is a lot of fuss for just one song, but he certainly made it look and sound outstanding. Sophie Zucchini’s Cha-Cha was stunning, Lois Urwin’s Marty was rather lovely; and Darren John brought a lot of nerdy fun to the role of Eugene – his collapsing dancing with Nancy Hill’s Miss Lynch was really funny. So as a performance this gets an official “fabulous” from me.
But what of the musical itself? OK here comes the controversial bit. As a Grease-newbie, I’ve done a little research and checked the storyline of the film; and it seems to me that the story in the stage version is heavily pared down. But let’s look at what we’re shown: bad-boy and good-girl fall in love in the summer and when they are unexpectedly reunited it’s damaging for his image to be tied down with a respectable dame. She gets ridiculed; he plays the field; but she’s hopelessly devoted to him and the only way she can get him back is by acting the slut. He wouldn’t come up to her level, so she descends to his.
Now I don’t want you to think that Mrs C is lacking in the sense of humour department, or isn’t a party girl, because that’s not the case; in fact she will lead the conga at the annual accountancy convention. But this storyline depressed her no end. It made her want to grab Sandy by the collar and shout “where’s your self-respect?” Talking, as we were, about contextualising songs within musicals, Mrs C had always thought of “Hopelessly Devoted To You” as a sincerely romantic and rather idealistic song – and now she sees it as symptomatic of a character that just screams “Victim”. It’s rather ruined it for her, I fear, despite Carina Gillespie’s brilliant performance of it. I mentioned to Mrs C in the interval that it’s the kind of show that would attract kids to the theatre (which is a great thing) to which she agreed but thought some of the subject matter would be a little dubious. When I asked her on the way home if she would consider taking our nieces to see it she instantly said “No Way!”
I definitely agree with her on this – although it didn’t affect me personally quite the same way it did her. Bizarrely, as a show that is seen as a landmark in depicting a new age of freedom for these young people in the late 1950s, in retrospect it seems to me to put back the cause of women by decades. Mrs C actually felt in the not too distant future that this show might be seen as very un-PC; in the same way that today we reflect back on The Black and White Minstrels. I was unimpressed with the aspect of the storyline that has a character fed up because she might be pregnant; and then a couple of song-and-dances later saying it’s ok because it was only “a false alarm so everything’s all right again, no need to make any lifestyle changes, phew that’s a relief, party on”. Are we missing a lesson to be learned here? Even the audience is encouraged to misbehave a bit. There’s a song number early on – “Those Magic Changes” – where the dance routine consists of three of the guys emerging in and out of their shower cubicles wearing minute towelettes and doing obscene things with loofahs, which evoked a lot of raunchy whoopings from some of the female members of the audience. If it had been the men in the audience rowdily ogling scantily clad ladies in the showers we would have been lynched.
So that’s my bittersweet experience of last night. A really first class production, superbly executed in all departments; thoroughly enjoyable until I started thinking about what the show actually says to us – its gobsmacking sexism and how it celebrates some really bad behaviour and attitudes, and then I feel a bit depressed by it.
In the final curtain call Danny did a bit of a cool hair-comb and then threw said comb out into the audience to great whooping and cheers. It seemed to hover in the air for ages and then I finally realised it was heading for us. Her mind bogged down with disgust at the show’s message, Mrs C felt she would have degraded herself to catch it, so it ended up at her feet. However, I rescued it from its otherwise certain fate of being binned so it will live on as part of my theatre programme collection!