Grease is a frothy, popular musical that has achieved legendary status through an iconic movie release. It is beloved, and it makes it audiences happy. Staging it, however, can be notoriously difficult. It’s easy to miss the mark, and unfortunately, that is the case with the current Australian touring production.
A nostalgia machine that seems more interested in filling seats than entertaining the people in them, this show tears through the story and barely pauses for the songs; they are snatched out of the air and gone before you even have a chance to really enjoy them – but there are plenty of bright lights and fire and shiny things that try and fool you into thinking you’re having a good time.
It could – and should – be so much better than this. Grease is not a meditation on the human condition or sharp social commentary, and perhaps it’s easy to dismiss it as something frivolous. But internally, in its story and music, Grease knows and owns exactly what it is: a love-letter to the highs and lows of teenage love and life; it’s a snapshot of the moment before you leave high school, when you’re an adult but not quite, that moment before you have to have real responsibilities and be real grownups, but are so ready to find a place in the world. It’s a fun, loud, show, but it doesn’t need to be a sensory assault: its popularity means it can be a little less on the eyes and a little more in the mind.
Grease wants you to have a good time before you have to go and live in the real world again. It’s not supposed to be a machine for nostalgia; it’s supposed to be a reminder of the optimism and possibility of youth, and the chameleon-like power of love to inspire people to reach out to others and to tap into their more vulnerable selves. While listening to great music.
There are brief moments when Grease lifts from the floor and becomes a piece of musical theatre (i.e. it remembers that theatre needs to touch its audience) – “Mooning” sung by Roger (Duane McGregor) and Jan (Laura Murphy) is a sweet, hilarious minute on stage, and Gretel Scarlett’s vocals, particularly on “Hopelessly Devoted to You” are a pleasure.
Lucy Maunder is in a league of her own with a brittle Rizzo, and while her “Sandra Dee” number whizzes by so fast we never get to indulge in it, Her “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” is given a little more breathing space to be a lot more effective.
As Danny, Rob Mills is a reliable player delivering a good John Travolta impression and a commendable effort in all things choreographic – he’s likable enough to root for, even when Danny is at his worst.
The show muddles itself again with Anthony Callea’s Johnny Casino crooning the hand jive in a decidedly anachronistic arrangement with melisma that detracts from the fun of a sharp, punchy, 50s rock and roll piece. Todd McKenney’s Teen Angel pays homage to his stint in The Boy From Oz and his gig on Dancing With the Stars, but forgets to be the funny, subversive little song it can really be. This production also pinks Frenchy’s (Francine Cain) hair, but doesn’t have her hide it, mention it, or in any way demonstrate that it’s a result of her lack of beauty school prowess. Yes, we’ve all seen the film, but that is no excuse for abandoning plot points and replacing them with set pieces. The script has been successful in other productions – it hasn’t been changed specifically for this outing – but that’s where direction and choreography and staging need to come in and create a fuller story with their actors and their set pieces. ‘Assumed knowledge’ moments still need to be inferred on stage, if not explicitly stated.
Similarly, the show moves at such a cracking pace (after an inexplicably slow beginning which included a “We Go Together” audience singalong before we had even made it to the overture) that it forgets to create any real connection between Danny and Sandy. Mills and Scarlett do their best but it’s still unclear whether or not Danny and Sandy actually like each other at all; they spend almost all their time together onstage fighting. There’s no affection or tenderness.
The plot holes keep coming without any innovation on the stage to fill them, or at least suggest filling them. Kenickie (Stephen Mahy) and the T-Birds mention their impending rumble with the rival high school gang after the school dance, but after they try and ask Danny to come along, it is never mentioned again. It’s such a dire disconnect between script and staging that in order to justify Sandy’s transformation at the top of the “You’re the One That I Want” number, she’s asked if she’s still mad at Danny after he pushed her too far sexually at the drive-in. Her response is simply, “To hell with it!” And no one is satisfied.
It’s aggravating because Grease is part of so many people’s happy place, and this production of it lets every one of those people down.
The show ends with a singalong (the second one of the night) in a megamix, a sort of last-ditch effort to mitigate the audience’s buyer’s remorse: you remember having had some fun, so it must have been worth the ticket price, right?