Everyone has seen Grease, right? The 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in all their ‘teenage’ heartache-y glory? Grease, the stage musical version, came first, in 1971. And while you might head off to the New Theatre in Oxford thinking you know what you’re going to spend the evening viewing, you’d be quite mistaken.
Of course, everything you know from the film is there, albeit in a slightly different order, as though the script was perhaps shuffled before rehearsals began. In the show programme, Director Nikolai Foster discusses how the holders of the Grease rights, Ron Taft and Jim Jacobs, allowed the production to return to the original script from the early 70s. Initially written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, Grease was a play ‘that detailed their own lives growing up as working-class kids on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s’. This production of the stage show explores that grittier side of the story while keeping the fun, fluffy essence of the film. I would liken it to viewing the DVD extras, or Director’s cut, perhaps.
From start to finish the show is energetic and exuberant, with spirited performances across the entire cast. Dan Partridge and Martha Kirby as Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski take on the iconic roles with no qualms at all, and their voices soar and dovetail almost effortlessly. It’s immediately apparent, to this reviewer at least, that Kirby’s Sandy is no wallflower. There’s a lot more pep to this version of the character than I remember from her Australian forerunner in the film. She’s spunky, as the kids used to say. It left me wondering whether the transformation at the end of the show would be quite so dramatic, but her sassiness throughout the performance just made the ending all the more plausible.
In this performance the role, of Rizzo was played by Emily Beth Harrington, and having seen her, I genuinely can’t imagine anybody else taking it on. She balances that snarky, leader of the Pink Ladies tone perfectly with the softer, more fragile side of Riz that appears during the second act.
Indeed, as soon as the Company assemble for the first bars of 'Grease is the Word' at the start of the show, I settled into my seat, knowing that the much-loved story was in safe hands. The ensemble come out as one, and it’s either excellent acting or they are all just having the best time. Or perhaps a combination of the two.
The choreography is superb, as one would imagine with Arlene Phillips at the helm. The cast work hard to make the moves and scene transitions seamless. Combined with Vince Fontaine (the fabulously extra Darren Bennett) being ever-present in his WAXX radio booth hovering at the back of the stage, the late-50s is brought to life in a bright shower of music, neon and beautiful period costumes.
Obviously, I can’t end this review without mentioning our Teen Angel, the ever-so-lovely Peter Andre. Starring in just the one scene, this role is more of a cameo than headline, but as soon as Frenchy (the effervescent Eloise Davies) was left alone on stage the audience anticipation ramped up a notch, and there he was. Wings and all. There were actual screams from the auditorium, some of which came from me (well, you can’t help but get caught up in it all…). While he admittedly brought the house down, I can’t say he was the best performer of the evening - in fact, I wouldn’t be able to pick any one actor out from the cast for that accolade, although Rizzo’s performance of 'There Are Worse Things I Could Do' is vying for the top spot.
If you want a couple of hours of pure joy and your toes could do with a bit of exercise, I can’t recommend this enough. The audience danced out of the theatre grinning from ear to ear.