Touring – reviewed at Curve, Leicester
Nikolai Foster’s 2016 production of Grease returns to Curve as part of a major tour, and, while it doesn’t quite have the pizzazz of three years ago, the show remains a solid, thoughtful and energetic version of a much loved classic. Foster brings a freshness to the piece, highlighting the tension between the languid suburban setting and the restlessness of a changing society.
Eschewing the glamour and nostalgia of most productions (and, indeed, the 1979 film), Foster and co. present an altogether grittier picture of a youth in limbo between the juvenile antics of the schoolyard – supposedly the best days of their lives – and an adulthood which promises little in terms of social progression. The somewhat dingy tone to proceedings certainly made me sit up and take notice, and ensures an evening boasting substance alongside the usual sing-along tunes and jive-tastic choreography.
Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s book is scant on plot – that’s undeniable – but in Foster’s hands this becomes a blessing, rather than a curse, as the show feels much more ‘a year in the life’ of the average 50s teenager. There’s no whizz-bang pyrotechnics, souped-up magic flying cars (in fact, the famed ‘Greased Lightning’ remains a pile of scrap metal throughout), or twee fun fair frolics.
These kids live in a town where the hottest joint is the local burger dive, and the most excitement you can hope for is a ride in the back seat of the aforementioned hunk of rusty metal. The 1950s style songs – croonful harmonies, rock‘n’roll swagger – make for a wistful contrast with the humdrum darkness of the characters’ lives; a sort of romantic, pop-culture inspired fantasy, solidified by the narrative device of the Vince Fontaine radio show.
Due to this distinction between radio glamour, the mundanity of school, and the threat of an adulthood characterised by suburban ennui, the less savoury aspects that have always existed in Grease are less jarring. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still uncomfortable to watch at times (my mum, who was my date at this performance, was unsettled by the amount of male-on-female groping on display), and the feminist in me still weeps at the thought of Sandy caving into peer pressure, but here these occurrences at least makes sense ‘in-world’.
At the end of it all, it’s about kids being kids, and generational disapproval is nothing new. All of this points to Foster and co. presenting an intelligent take on Jacobs and Casey’s show, a novelty for a musical known inside out by many.
Colin Richmond’s set remains a neat mix of the scholastic (the Rydell High gymnasium) and the garish (the seedy neon lights), with the radio booth looming large over the stage. Other positive hangovers from the 2016 production include the reinstating of the ‘old’ songs cut from the original Broadway production (eg. ‘Tattoo Song’, ‘How Big I’m Gonna Be’) which help flesh out the characters. I was, however, pleased to see that ‘In My Day’, an Eleven O’Clock number for Ms Lynch of all people, has been cut. It didn’t work previously, and now the finale runs a lot more smoothly. The only puzzler for me is the inexplicable change in choreography. Nick Winston’s routines were a highlight in 2016, and it appears that Arlene Phillips hasn’t contributed much other than name recognition. That isn’t to say the routines are dull, but I didn’t have the same excitement watching them as I did with Winston’s work.
The young cast are admirable in their commitment to character – I enjoyed watching the ensemble interact in the background, it enhanced the symbiotic feelings of animosity and comradery associated with high school friendships – and the sheer energy with which they approach the musical numbers. Stand outs include Martha Kirby’s down-to-earth Sandy, whose pragmatism and honesty is refreshingly mature, and Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky who plays Rizzo with a touching sensitivity behind the bitchiness. Ryan Anderson gives a stellar vocal performance during ‘Mooning’, and Curve bastion, Darren Bennett, relishes his dual roles as the pervy Fontaine and kitsch Teen Angel.
For all its faults, Greasehas remained popular for a reason, and while all the karaoke-esque fun of the score is present and attacked with enthusiasm, it is Foster’s attention to detail and his determination to return to the roots of the musical that assures Curve’s production stands out. Seedy, listless, but retaining an essence of carefree teenage revolt, I hope this tour sets that standard for future productions. Oh, and for the Grease purists, don’t worry, there’s still a megamix!
Grease plays at Curve, Leicester until 14thSeptember.For full tour details please visit: https://greasethemusicalontour.com/tour-tickets/
The cast of Grease
Credit: Manuel Harlan