When I was 10, Grease was my word. I knew the film soundtrack album inside out before I saw the film (at the cinema), my school-friend group called ourselves the Pink Ladies and I still have a crush on John Travolta. Sitting with other 40-something woman with similar memories, the enthusiasm of nostalgia did a lot to up our enjoyment.
First seen in the UK, this production, with its shiny new Australian cast, has been to Brisbane and Sydney on its way to Melbourne.
Touring has left it as slick as Danny’s quiff and as tight as Sandy’s black cat suit, and the cast seem to love every moment.
With the costumes that joyfully exaggerate the 50s style, a design of posters from the 50s and lots of fluro lights, and an onstage band who are having as much fun as the cast, there’s so much that should make this Grease zoom.
But something’s missing. The show coasts and doesn’t pick up after its audience-sing-along opening with Auntie Val and the fabulousness of the opening and “Summer Loving”.
The direction feels like it jumps from concert-perfect number to number, losing the story and dumping the emotion along the way. Grease isn’t a tear-jerking Sondheim, but it is a story about teenage love, the pressure to fit in and the ultimate triumph of friendship. There are reasons that this show, created in the 1970s, resonates so much with fans and to tone down its grit and conflict breaks the heart of Grease.
As in many bought-in productions, the terrific cast don’t seem to be allowed to bring themselves or too much guts to their roles. Lucy Maunder is the exception as Rizzo and the supporting Pink Ladies and T-Birds each shine in their solo numbers, but no one is unforgettable and Danny (Rob Mills) and Sandy (Gretel Scarlett) don’t seem to actually fancy each other.
And there’s the odd need for celebrity guest stars in commercial shows. (Does it really sell more tickets?) Val Lehman as Miss Lynch is a hoot, for those who get the Prisoner jokes; Todd McKenny enjoys himself a bit too much as Teen Angel, with Boy from Oz jokes; no one knows what Anthony Callea is doing for his one-song appearance as Johnny Casino; and Bert Newton as the young, sexually-irresistible DJ Vince Fontaine is so ridiculous that its absurdity almost works. But, as with most of the show, it was always Val, Todd, Anthony and Bert, never characters.
This Grease is a celebration of the memories and nostalgia of Grease rather than a production to remember or one to define it for a new audience.