Many would know Grease from the classic 1978 film starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. However, few would be aware that this film is actually based on a stage production of the same name. Originally opening in Chicago way back in 1971, the musical has had many revivals and iterations during its lifetime, including right here in Australia.
Produced by John Frost for Crossroads Live, Grease was last seen on Australian stages 10 years ago. Now, in 2024, Frost has revived the musical for a new production. Opening in Melbourne on Tuesday the 9th of January, Grease is most definitely the word around town.
However, the question on my lips was whether this story should be revived at all? On the surface, Grease is an enjoyable and fun evening out at the theatre. But sadly, as you unpack it, there is a lot that brings this production down.
Grease is set in the 50s at Rydell High. Danny Zuko (Joseph Spanti) is part of a group known as the T-Birds. Rounding out the group are his fellow classmates, Kenickie (Keanu Gonzalez), Roger (Andy Seymour), Doody (Tom Davis) and Sonny (Harry Targett).
During the summer break, Danny falls in love with an Australian exchange student, Sandy Dumbrowski (Annelise Hall). Without knowing, Sandy has enrolled into the same school and falls in with the female clique, the Pink Ladies. Comprising of Betty Rizzo (Mackenzi Dunn), Marty (Brianna Bishop), Frenchy (Catty Hamilton) and Jan (Caitlin Spears), the Pink Ladies take Sandy under their wings. Surprised to see each other at the same school, Sandy is elated to find Danny standing in front of her. But her dreams are quickly dashed when Danny turns out to be a completely different person.
Adding to the aforementioned roles, we also have Rydell High’s classic nerds with Patty Simcox (Lucy Fraser) and Eugene (Gareth Isaac). Miss Lynch is portrayed by the lovely Patti Newton (Melbourne only), and Vince Fontaine is played by the dashing Jay Laga’aia. We also have the legend that is Marcia Hines as Teen Angel.
Musically, each of the cast are fantastic in their respective roles. Any misgivings can be put down to the production material. Annelise Hall as Sandy is great and her solo is wonderful, however, we don’t get to see much of the character on stage and somewhat have to fill in the blanks between the story’s progression. Joseph Spanti’s Danny Zuko is equally as great and Spanti’s vocals soar. But together, I didn’t buy into their relationship and I think this may be more to do with the subject matter. For one, the story displays an assault against Sandy that is just completely forgotten about. Again, no fault of the performers, but the book itself. It just didn’t sit right with me.
Keanu Gonzalez is electrifying as Kenickie. His swagger and portrayal of the character is the perfect representation of the Kenickie that I know and love from the film. With Mackenzie Dunn as Betty Rizzo alongside him, the couple’s chemistry is noticeable and believable. Both have fantastic vocal performances during ‘Greased Lightin’’ and ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’, and their dance skills are just as impressive. Just wait until you see Gonzalez during the mega mix at the end! I can see why he said during the press interviews that ‘Grease Lightnin’’ was his favourite number.
Other notable mentions go to Briana Bishop as Marty. I couldn’t help but be drawn to her character during some of the larger numbers, she’s funny and quirky and has an amazing vocal performance during her number, ‘Freddy, My Love’. Andy Seymour and Caitlin Spears as Roger and Jan respectively have a fun number towards the end of the first act called ‘Mooning’ and the pair work extremely well together, their characters combined make an adorable couple.
Final mention to Tom Davis as Doody with a solo number ‘Those Magic Changes’ the lifted the room. Whilst the performance is fun and fantastic with Davis showcasing gorgeous vocals, the song and placing itself in the show felt out of place. Another example of the faults in the material, but not fault of the performer.
Of course, we have the three legends of the stage in this production. Patti Newton as Miss Lynch is fantastic. I couldn’t help but smile every time Newton hit the stage with her undeniable charm and how her character interacted with the students. Whenever she was on stage, she made her presence known and you couldn’t help but adore her. Jay Laga’aia is fun as Vince Fontaine and steals your gaze in the wonderful costume and hair design by James Browne.
But the absolute highlight of the entire show is easily the magnificent Marcia Hines as Teen Angel. Most would know Teen Angel from the film as a male character during the number ‘Beauty School Dropout’ serenading Frenchy. I must say, the choice to cast Hines into the role is a saving grace for this production. Dressed in a stunning, flowing white gown by Costume Designer, James Brown, Hines absolutely commands the stage the moment she rolls in. She has a natural swagger that fits the role perfectly and her vocals are unmatched.
Aside from the dated material, the biggest let down of this production is unfortunately the set design. Right from the opening number, a giant, white set of bleachers take over the entire stage. Set on a revolving floor, the bleachers rotate around revealing the open stairs that are blaringly bright or rotate to reveal a different scene behind.
Initially, this worked okay and seemed quite clever. However, the rotations seemed endless, became repetitive, tired, and there was no change in direction at all, rotating clockwise for the entirety of the show. Sometimes the stage would rotate not to change settings but for the sake of it. When the set did need to change, stagehands were clearly visible, moving parts of the set around. Normally, a stage would fall under darkness and sets would move, but for Grease, they didn’t even try to hide it or have the stagehands appear in costume to maintain the illusion.
I am unsure if the misgiving with the set is due to directive choices or Browne also taking on the creative duties of Costumes and Wig Design which were wonderful. But sadly, the set itself felt unrefined and unfortunately brings the rest of the production down. There are, however, no faults with the Lighting Design by Rudy Dalgleish and Sound Design by Michael Waters.
With Original Book, Music and Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, this new production of Grease, with exception of Choreography from American Eric Giancola, is entirely Australian. With Direction by Luke Joslin, and Music Supervisor and additional direction by Dave Skelton, the full cast of Grease put on a fantastic performance night after night with what they have to work with.
Grease as a story is incredibly outdated with a narrative that just wouldn’t pass if it were created today, but this is of no fault of those performing. It is more a question of whether this story still worthy of the stage today. Whilst I understand the nostalgia and drawcard of such iconic content, specifically its songs, the story itself has not progressed with the times and I believe should be laid to rest. Negativity aside, the music, songs and performances are still exciting, fun, are performed by a talented case, and the mega mix alone at the end will surely get you up on your feet, dancing and singing along.
If you approach this production with a technical eye, you may be disappointed. However, for those who just want to have a good night out at the theatre with your besties, friends, family and soak up the iconic classics, then Grease the Musical is still a fun trip down memory lane and worthy of a visit for all who love the film, musicals in general, and those that adore the previous stage productions of Grease and want to see it executed in a new way.
Performing now at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, Grease the Musical is on until Sunday the 10th of March before it jets off to Sydney in from the 24th of March, and Perth from the 30th of June, 2024.
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Photography by Grant Alexander.