“It’s still familiar to me
Sends a thrill right through me”
It’s a funny thing, returning to a show you know so well even if you haven’t seen it for maybe 2 decades. My abiding memory of seeing Grease as a child was Shane Richie corpsing after accidentally knocking the bosom of a co-star and then being singularly unimpressed that this happened every single night. And since then, I’ve never felt the need to see it on stage, whether on tour or in its intermittent West End appearances where, if memory serves, it became one of the guiltier culprits of stunt casting.
But Nikolai Foster’s musical theatre experience and tenure at Leicester’s Curve as its AD piqued my interest and quenched my doubts sufficiently to make the trip to Rydell High and chang chang changitty chang sha-bop, darn me if it isn’t a rather good time. It does require you putting a measure of scepticism to one side in the show’s questionable message about changing who you are but it does also make you think about who we change for – it’s easy to forget that Danny has already fallen for Sandy by the time she decides to transform, is she changing for him, for herself, or to fit into the Pink Ladies?
Crucially, Foster’s production doesn’t skimp on ambition or scope in its evocation of late 1950s Americana as Colin Richmond’s design uses the full width and height of the stage and Nick Winston’s choreography expands to fill the space, marshalling all the energy of the 20+ strong company to dazzling effect in stone-cold classics such as ‘Born To Hand Jive’ and ‘Greased Lightning’ and a number of songs that you won’t recognise if the film is your only point of reference. Darren Bennett’s Vince Fontaine is huge fun as the DJ taking us from tune to tune and his enthusiasm is certainly infectious.
Grease does take a little while to get started though, the splendour of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s songs can’t disguise the thinness of the plotting and the occasional dryness of the dialogue. But once it is up and running, there’s great work. Dex Lee (impressively switching to musicals from the intense drama of Father Comes Home…) and Jessica Paul are sweetly heartfelt and in fine voice as Danny and Sandy and Djalenga Scott and Jonny Fines sparkle as Rizzo and Kenickie, the former’s ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ a real stand out.
Unexpectedly, the burgeoning parallel relationship between Natalie Woods’ Jan and Sam Murphy’s Roger emerges as a real highlight too, real comedy coming from their bumbling romance which is genuinely endearing. It’s a reminder that the social fabric was shifting for everyone at this time, not just those at the top of the pecking order and from Keisha Atwell’s Marty to Sophie Isaacs’ Frenchy, you can see that the stage show of Grease is perhaps a little more feminist than it might normally be given credit for. It’s also considerably good fun, even if those questions about its identity politics remain.