What happened to Squabbalogic?
The staunchly independent boutique musical theatre company used to feel vital, maybe even radical. Led by artistic director Jay James-Moody (very smart, sometimes brilliant), there was a sense of hunger, urgency, and rebellion in their tiny offbeat productions of curious, challenging musicals – [Title of Show], Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Carrie. These were new to Sydney and to Australia, challenging audiences with their smarts, heart, and assured direction.
But ever since their brief involvement with juggernaut independent musical theatre venue The Hayes Theatre, where Squabbalogic presented a very fine Drowsy Chaperone – featuring a heartbreaking lead performance by James-Moody – something is different. Shows like Sondheim on Sondheim, Triassic Parq, and Grey Gardens have passed without any real artistic value, lifeless and lacking ambition.
But when the company announced their 2016 season, there was a glimmer of hope with the announcement that James-Moody and co. would present The Original Grease – a recreation of the bubble-gum juggernaut’s more raw and raunchy origins in Chicago. The show’s purported founding anarchic spirit seemed like the perfect fit for Squab, who have performed with a sly wink to the audience many times before, under the direction of James-Moody and his adeptness for switching between irony and sincerity. James-Moody has been after the rights for this show for years, working with creators to restore sketches and songs and bring it to the stage.
But something just isn’t working anymore.
The Original Grease is a puzzling production of muted chaos. James-Moody, as director, can’t seem to settle on or investigate a single moment in the book or music; his characters have their discoveries and moments simultaneously (“Born to Hand Jive” is a mess of power-plays, pranks, and a tone-deaf, iffy almost-threesome) and it’s impossible to know where to look.
More of an ensemble piece than the version most people are now familiar with, The Original Grease wants to make more of a study of teens at the tail-end of the 1950s, about to walk into the new decade as adults. The Burger Palace Boys (you know them as T-Birds) are harassed by police, pay a homeless guy to buy them booze, and perform air-raid drills at school. The Pink Ladies talk about guys, sex, and not much else – aside from a superficial dive into their lack of ambition or failed attempts to better themselves (like Frenchy’s misadventures with beauty school). It’s a grim portrait and a limiting one – but the book is a product of its time.
James Moody’s staging (and often, Simone Salle’s choreography) is so reminiscent of the film that the show’s original and rarely-heard numbers (that were replaced by songs like “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want”) are never given a chance to be appreciated objectively. Their look and shape here prompts constant comparison to the movie, and the songs we already know so well and love. This seems like a choice devoid of curiosity, a chance not taken to explore a new path.
Emerging most strongly from the production is the sense that The Original Grease’s apparent edginess is really just artifice. It’s a messy music theatre piece that carelessly drops plot threads, more about mood than story.
Squabbalogic never really tries to resolve these problems. There’s no real cohesion in the production and it’s unruly in a tiresome way, rather than an exciting one. There’s nudity for no real reason or artistic value – artificial edginess again – and the actors who do de-clothe rush offstage behind the band, looking so uncomfortable to get backstage, and it places the audience in the terrible position of perpetuating that discomfort.
The smartest thing about this production is the idea behind its casting: the diverse, game ensemble of kids onstage is, on average, around 20 years old. They’re new and dynamic in a way that only happens when new, young actors and given a show to hold together. They don’t elevate out of the chaos or master it but they seem to be, for the most part, able to ride the wave. Without this fresh injection of energy, the production would have felt twice as long and twice as dire. The Burger Palace Boys (including Aaron Robuck, Timothy Shead, Temujin Tera, Jason Mobbs-Green, Brendan Xavier, and Doron Chester) are boisterous and unstoppable. The Pink Ladies and Cha-Cha (Coral Mercer-Jones, Daniella Mirels, Caroline Oayda, Stephanie Priest, and Victoria Knowles) are just as rowdy, just as flashy, and their energy levels never flag.
Stephanie Priest’s take on Jan is broadly funny and her performance feels appealingly comfortable. Coral Mercer-Jones sings a fine “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” as Rizzo, even though the staging is confused – the lighting (designed by Mikey Rice) switches partway through the number, confusing its inner narrative, and Sandy (Emily Hart), who is the recipient of the song, never even looks at Rizzo. (She has her back to the audience – her change of heart is thoroughly missed by the audience, though we are told about it later in her Sandra Dee reprise).
Matilda Moran shines brightest as Patty, with a bigger part to play in this version of the show than she has in any surviving version. She operates as a vital contrast between the Pink Ladies and the more ‘typical’ girls of the time, but not without her own sexuality – her crush on Danny is much bigger and explored in a little more depth. The Patty number restored in this production (the best of the lot) – “Yeeughh!” – is fast, comic, and charming, and Moran has the chops for it.
The Original Grease could have been a slam-dunk for Squabbalogic, familiar as they are with finding the human hooks of emotion in fraught shows (Carrie) and fusing humour with dark commentary on the state of the world (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), helmed by a director who is known for finding the truth of the moment and a character in music (The Drowsy Chaperone) to connect with audiences. But something has happened, Squabbalogic has had a change of heart, and this production feels confused, boring, and disconnected. Like it has never really figured itself out.
Maybe next time.