Grease was always supposed to be about an age of innocence tinged with sexual awakening, a paean to first love and first cigarettes, Cadillac cars and dance night in the school gym. Once upon a time in the West End, this seemed like a good idea; Richard Gere was the first, very good, UK Danny at the New London in 1973 (Elaine Paige had a small role).
Somehow, with the passing years and the iconic elevation of the very bad 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton- John, the fun has been squeezed out of it, and any residual charm in Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s ersatz rock and roll musical flattened in a rush to the finale of selected highlights.
As at the opening of this production by David Gilmore in 1993, I feel defeated by decibel levels and churlish with disappointment. The amplification has a tinny, invasive quality that’s the enemy of musical enjoyment, and when things quieten down a bit in the second act – you can actually hear some good rhythm guitar in “Sandy” at the drive-in movie – the songs are less good than the frantic ones.
For those who could bear to watch the entertainment abomination that was Grease Is the Word on ITV earlier this year, a verdict is required on the performances of 19 year-old Danny Bayne as Danny Zuko and 24 year-old Susan McFadden (sister of Brian McFadden, the Westlife pop singer) as Sandy Dumbrowski. That verdict is mixed. It’s impossible to isolate acting talent, or even personality impact, in the first half because the entire cast is encouraged to squeal, squawk, face-pull and cackle like a cage full of angry baboons in the zoo. No one bears even a passing resemblance to a human being.
But as Arlene Phillips’ whiplash musical staging (re-created by Stori James) kicks in, you can see that Bayne does indeed have a powerful stage presence and his command of the moves is total (it turns out he’s been British champion in hip-hop, freestyle and Latin American dance for years). McFadden’s Sandy, however, remains a dumb cluck even when she dons the black leotard and says goodbye to the wholesome image of Sandra Dee that has hampered her pulling progress. She’s sweet enough, but nothing special, and her singing lacks depth or resonance.
Terry Parsons’ design remains as colourful as it was, though the floating Cadillacs have gone and the sun shines with far less golden intensity on the bleachers. Thin strips of red neon light make a good design link between the local DJ’s recording studio and the high school, where everyone seems to be about 35 years old.
Jayde Westaby makes a mark as the suddenly pregnant Rizzo and Charlie Cameron is a prettily pneumatic Marti. Siobhan Dillon, one of the best of the runners-up in the BBC search for Maria programme, whom Grease co-producer David Ian slobbered over in the adjudications, is rather hidden away as Patty but will surely have a second chance in the near future.
– Michael Coveney