1st December, 2016
I admit to being a little disappointed when it was announced that Curve’s Christmas musical this year would be Grease. Yes, it’s a classic, but I’ve always felt the stage show doesn’t quite live up to the film, and there’s also the issue of the less than wholesome moral of the story (if you want to fit in/make friends/get laid, change everything about yourself) – which, let’s face it, is barely disguised by the paper-thin plot and cheesy 50’s dialogue. This seems especially pertinent in comparison with more contemporary musicals that target a similar audience which have instead championed self-esteem, promoting individuality and anti-prejudice messages, such as Hairspray and Legally Blonde – both have been produced by Curve in recent years. However, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s songs still have the top-tapping joyousness that has secured Grease’s enduring popularity, and, somewhat to my surprise and despite the musical’s inherent faults, I found myself really enjoying this production.
Nikolai Foster’s production eschews the boxy design that has characterised Curve’s recent seasons (Legally Blonde, Spring Awakening, The Importance of Being Earnest, to name but a few), to open up the stage to its full capacity; Colin Richmond’s school gymnasium set is enlivened by neon signage and a boppy booth for Vince Fontaine’s radio show snippets which tie together the scenes. (On an unrelated note – where can I get that glitterball?! fabulous) But the main advantage of opening up the set is that it allows Nick Winston’s choreography to shine. Winston brings a fresh vigour to routines which are engrained in pop-culture history. This revitalising energy is no more evident than in the ‘Hand Jive’ and ‘Greased Lightning’, stunningly realised by the triple-threat cast. I’ve never really considered Grease to be a ‘dance’ show, but this production really celebrated that aspect.
One of the biggest draws for this revival is the much-promoted reinstating of several of Jacobs and Casey’s original songs that were cut before going to Broadway. It certainly piqued my curiosity as an opportunity to glimpse into the musical theatre history books. Yet, on the whole, the songs add little. An oddly brief number in which the Burger Palace Boys (that’s right – not a ‘T-Bird’ in sight here) muse over whether or not to get a tattoo goes nowhere and is never referenced again; it’s pretty much a glorified scene change filler. While the idea of a song for Miss Lynch (Shobna Gulati) is appealing – the possibility for a rare insight into adult life in such a teenage, hormone driven world – the placing of ‘In My Day’ directly before the finale only serves to drag down the plot, a placeholder before the real event. While these additions don’t add any extra verve, they don’t exactly detract from the show either. As a musical theatre curio they’re worth seeing as an indication of Jacobs and Casey’s original vision, and confirm the importance of the preview process in regards to book, music and lyric alterations.
Conversely, the old favourites are all in fine fettle and sung with gusto. Sam Murphy and Natalie Woods strike just the right balance between adorable and goofy in their show-stealing duet, ‘Mooning’, and Jessica Paul (Sandy) and Djalenga Scott (Rizzo) both knock it out the park in their belting solos, ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ and ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’, respectively. Dex Lee (he was first brought to my attention in the wonderful The Scottsboro Boys) makes a creditable stab at erasing the memory of John Travolta’s Danny, and generally succeeds, incorporating his own inflections and riffs in lieu of Travolta’s trademark falsetto, and adopting a more insecure characterisation; Lee brings a sense that the ‘cool-guy’ image is just one of many facets to Zuko’s charm. Rounding off the cast is Curve’s master chameleon, the ever-brilliant Darren Bennet as the high-kicking, motor-mouthed Vince Fontaine, who, with his shades of knowing humour, had the audience giggling.
While I have several quibbles with the book, that is a moot point because there is so much to commend about Foster’s rejuvenating production; a charismatic cast that gels, great music, glorious choreography, and a set which allows the musical’s assets to naturally excel. At the end of the evening the entire audience was on their feet, singing and dancing in the aisles to a megamix of Grease’s greatest hits; a party atmosphere which absolutely hits the spot as a pre-Christmas pick-me-up.
Grease plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st January 2017.