Grease is one of those ubiquitous shows . The older generation remember Olivia Newton John in THAT black leather cat suit in the 1978 film, the younger generation have been introduced to it as a staple of secondary school and amateur productions. Even when it came out, its 1950’s setting suggested that it had been around for twenty years. It still appears on the amateur and professional stage regularly, the film appears on television as a staple, and the hit songs live on as radio nostalgia favourites. It is not difficult to understand its success. Great songs, some strong characters and a decent, if predictable, plot, all meld into a satisfying whole with cross-generational appeal. The original production first performed in 1971, had a gritty edge to it, was set in Chicago, and had a different score, but this is wholesome fare. I saw the film when it came out, when I myself was a teenager. The stylised tale from America’s Rydell High did not resonate with my friends in suburban England , or myself. But the songs stuck in the mind, and we had ONJ in that cat suit… It was a fantasy, and that is, and was, its strength.
The key to making this show a success is great choreography. In hiring Arlene Phillips as choreographer, the company made the pivotal appointment to the creative team. Phillips is a justifiably legendary figure in contemporary dance, peerless in her understanding and experience of musical shows. Now seventy -four years old , she is a seminal presence in contemporary musical dance theatre. Famed for her creation of dance troupe Hot Gossip, and choreographing Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” video, there is not a West End show of note which she has not enhanced. This show is meat and drink to her: cue swirling skirts, bright costumes, tossed hair, great feet, and energy levels set at maximum. Costume designer Andreana Neofitou and her team have their work cut out with some 140 costume changes and 59 wigs. The show looks luscious . After a slightly mawkish front of curtain “Sandy”, as Danny and Sandy duet, the show opens to an ensemble “Grease is the Word”, a fine, supremely crafted number, performed with gusto and brio by a talented cast, it sets a standard and pace which never really lets up.“ We Go Together” is a fabulous closer to the first Act, showcasing the considerable chorus talents of the Pink Ladies and T Birds. It sounds great, it looks great with intricate movement, and is great. Both songs bookend several other impressive set pieces including “Summer Nights” and an incendiary “Greased Lightning”. It is a tremendous first half.
The three key roles go to Danielle Hope ( Over the Rainbow) as Sandy, Tom Parker (The Wanted) as Danny, and Louisa Lytton (East Enders; Ruby Allen) as Rizzo. Of the three, Hope fares best. Her singing is faultless, her stage presence strong, her portrayal of the vulnerable , shy side of Sandy, metamorphosing into sex goddess, was convincing and strong. Danny Zuko is not an easy part to play. He needs to be charismatic, but also possess a darker dangerous side to him too. As boy band frontman, Parker has the looks to excite the girls, but struggles with the full characterisation of the role. East Enders fans gave Louisa Lytton a great reception. She captures the sexy street wise side of Rizzo well, but her vocals were stretched by the part. Michael Cortez as Sonny and Tom Senior as Kenickie are a delight as a quickfire double act with superb vocals and commanding stage presence. George Olney kicked the show up a gear whenever he appeared on stage as Teen Angel/Vince Fontaine .
The second Act is slightly lighter on memorable songs. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” sounds strained and schmaltzy now despite Hope’s very best efforts. Yet it prospers because of the show-stopping “You’re the one that I Want” and a greatest hits medley at the encore. Director David Gilmore must take great credit for a coherent vision, satisfyingly realised. The onstage band, faultlessly and energetically led by musical director Griff Johnson, adds considerably to the evening’s enjoyment. In just a few months I have seen productions of a trio of American Teen Musicals, “Hairspray”, “Legally Blonde” and ” Grease”. “Hairspray” wins on narrative, but “Grease” wins on the songs. The applause at the end was sustained and warm from a full house for a cast who had given their all, particularly Danielle Hope. “Grease” runs until Saturday 2nd Dec and continues on tour.