Colour, light and movement keep the audience engaged throughout this Grease, a feast of 1950’s style music and dance. This is truly a show for all the family from 5 year olds to 105.
Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion. Grease is the way we are feeling. Grease is the word.
There is excitement from the moment the audience steps into the theatre. The story of Grease is set in 1959 and a soundtrack of pop hits from the era blares through the auditorium. The stage is a work of neon art and colour. Grease first opened on Broadway in 1971 and on the West End two years later, with Richard Gere in the role of Danny. The production currently performing in The New Victoria Theatre in Woking is part of a UK tour that opened in March at Manchester.
The theatre itself is beautiful and caters well for a large audience. It’s usually fuller than last night which is a shame as the production deserves to play to packed houses for its sheer entertainment value. Last night’s audience made up for its smaller numbers by its enthusiastic response; they were vocal enough for a crowd twice its size. (One of the best features of this theatre is the sparkling piano player in the foyer who produces hit after hit from the musical theatre repertoire whenever the audience is out.)
Set design by Terry Parsons is excellent and works well for the cast and the narrative from beginning to end. Colour is king and supported by the vibrant lighting design of Mark Henderson. There is a cartoon picture book feel in both the set and costume design (Andreane Neofitou) that allows the cast to stand out and shine.
The show begins with a reveal of the band on a raised platform at the back of the stage. They blast the air with an electric overture of the shows’ greatest hits. It features killer solos by several of the band and highlights the energy and charisma of the musical director, Griff Johnson, who leads and plays keyboards.
An unfortunate duet follows this highly energised instrumental overture. The two leads, Danny and Sandy, tell of their summer romance from balconies on opposite sides of the stage. It now sounds like a very thin and unsatisfactory sound after the fullness from the band. Fortunately the company takes the next section of the vocal overture with an explosive rendition of Grease is the Word. The vocals are tight and the dance exciting and well executed, complete with gymnastics. Splendid!
The story of Grease is a coming of age piece set in an American High School and peopled with the usual mix of cool kids and nerds. Boy meets girl, in this show in the summer before school starts, they split and then spend the rest of the show getting back together.
There are many outdated social mores in this script that raise questions of contemporary relevance: particularly the ending where Sandy changes her image and her outlook in order to get her man. Is this a tenet that should be promoted in the present day? There are also the many put downs ladled out to Eugene and Patty in the name of comedy. Though art should reflect life and bullying is alive and well in society, the treatment of this serious topic seems to promote inappropriate attitudes.
The outstanding performances in this production belong to the ensemble and full company numbers. All of the big production numbers are polished and exciting. As well as the opening number, Greased Lightnin’, complete with fireworks, is a bonanza of great choreography by Arlene Phillips and the finale is so good it brings the audience to its feet, roaring with approval.
The downfall of this show comes in some disappointing moments offered by the leads. Star casting has taken its toll. Tom Parker is in the role of Danny and although he is an accomplished recording star his characterisation of Danny is hindered by a lack of stage presence. He also badly missed the opening section of his solo Sandy last night.
Danielle Hope as Sandy was generally stronger than her partner and gave full rein to her voice in the reprise of Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee. Hope looks the part and is fabulous in the final scenes wearing the ubiquitous skin tight black costume made famous in the 1978 film version with Olivia Newton-John.
The characterisation of Rizzo by Louise Lytton was strong until the songs. Lytton sings well and vocally is more than capable of handling her two iconic solos, Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee and There are Worse Things I Could Do, if only she had carried her acting prowess into the songs.
George Olney plays the two featured male roles; Teen Angel and Vince Fontaine. Whilst it’s obvious that Olney is a skilled performer, playing Teen Angel with energy and humour, he is miscast as Vince Fontaine. The scene relies on the age difference between the lothario and the extreme youth of the student cast. In this case that age difference wasn’t evident in either the physicality or the acting of Olney and lessened the impact of the cameo role. It didn’t help that the school cast appeared to be older than Fontaine.
Of the rest of the performers Gabriella Williams is suitably annoying as Patty Simcox; Rosanna Harris is a lovable Jan and teams well with Oliver Jacobson playing her love interest, Roger.
Also a star is Callum Evans whose Eugene displays fine comedic talent. He and Miss Lynch have a delightful piece of nonsense at the end of the high school dance that is almost lost in the general fracas and dropping curtain. However it’s in the finale that one of his strongest talents, acrobatics, wows the audience.
Grease has the overall feel of an American sitcom, a rather two-dimensional effect as a result of a lack of defintion in the characterisations. However, this does not stop general enjoyment of a classic example of light entertainment.