Saturday, December 13, 2014

Grease The Musical, Regent Theatre, Melbourne, Review

                                                                Photo by Jeff Busby

Grease, The Musical
Regent Theatre
10th December, 2014

Reviewed by Lee Bemrose

The latest in an increasing number of musical reviews by someone who doesn't usually go to musicals, but sometimes seems to quite enjoy them when he does go to them, if they are good.

Mention Grease and most people will probably think of the 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John and which holds number one position as the biggest movie musical box office hit of all time. It's interesting to note that the original stageplay was produced seven or so years before that, and in its early days was apparently a much different creature - rougher, edgier and with a lot to say about the development of American teen and pop culture.

But the movie cleaned up Grease and turned it into a kind of shiny cartoon, and this stageplay is basically a faithful reproduction of that shiny cartoon. As much as I enjoyed this production, I'd be really keen to see one more faithful to the original concept.

If you don't know the story, it's a romance about teenagers Sandy and Danny who meet while on holiday. The romance ends when the holiday does, only for it to be reborn in a different form when Sandy unexpectedly enrolls at Danny's school, Rydell High. Danny's a greaser with a womanising reputation to uphold, and Sandy's a bit of a goodie-two-shoes. No one thinks they are right for each other. Danny snubs her whilst still having feelings for her, until Sandy has an epiphany; maybe if she tarts herself up and acts tarty like the other tarts, Danny will fall for her properly. She does indeed tart herself up and Danny does indeed fall for her properly. The end.

Not ever having paid much attention to the storyline or the message, I was a little surprised by what the story was saying. Nothing here about being individual. Nothing about staying true to yourself. Everything about bowing to peer pressure and blending in. The realisation that Grease was saying that true love is only possible when you tart it up a little had me and my plus one, The Dreaded One, bursting into song on the way home: "You're the tart that I want, you are the tart I want, ooh, ooh, ooh..."

But Grease as it is here is not really about the story or the message; it's about the music. The music provides a very efficient distraction from the message because it's mighty fine music. This is a slick production oozing with talent, and there is no way of not smiling, seat dancing and maybe even singing along on occasion.

The songs are such a star that the show starts with an instrumental medley of what we are about to hear, just to whet our appetite. To us ancients in the audience, these are very familiar tunes.

The show proper gets off to a clunky start with the teacher treating the audience like her class and teaching us the rama lama ding dong part of We Go Together. I reckon there's only ever about 10 percent of an audience who wants to join in segments like this, with the rest of us just wanting to sit back and be entertained. The director knows this too, which is why revver-uppers appear through the audience to try to get things going. Very awkward segment that went for too long and didn't add anything to the show.

While I've got my negative pants on... Bert Newton as DJ Vince Fontaine... hmm. A cynical person might suspect that Mr Newton was not hired for the part based on his acting talent so much as the name of a national treasure being the drawcard for a certain demographic. There was no attempt to become the character, he was just Bert Newton saying the lines of another character. When the energy of the show was humming along and the Radio WAXX DJ booth rolled out it was like burning up the quarter mile only to hit quicksand. But hell, at the end he seemed to enjoy being up there on stage and the old dears probably got a kick out of it so whatever.

Just a second while I take off my negative pants... there... and put on my positive pants.

The good bits were very good indeed. Songs like Born To Hand Jive (John Paul Young still has the stuff) and Greased Lightning are loads of fun and are done here so well. Lots of infectious fun. As is the very funny Beauty School Dropout... hilariously kitsch. Slower, emotional songs like Sandy and There Are Worse Things I Could Do were also done to perfection, the latter revealing an unexpectedly vulnerable side to the hard, sassy character Rizzo. Lovely.

The encore closing the show was lots of fun and the entire, large cast had clearly enjoyed themselves. My only gripe here was when John Paul Young cheekily sang the opening lines of Love Is In The Air... And. Didn't. Keep. Going. Very funny, you utter bastard tease.

Apparently the very early productions of Grease went for a raw, rough production, the very opposite of what we have here. It's a stunning spectacle of a show that looks and sounds great, and for the most part you'll enjoy yourself almost as much as the performers do. (Just don't think about the message too much).

Now playing at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne.
For more info, go to the Grease website.

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