Grease is the word on everyone’s lips at Milton Keynes Theatre this week and the show is the perfect pick-me-up production to see out the summer holidays in style.
This toe-tapping tale introduces us to members of the 1959 senior class at Rydell High School in California as they return after summer vacation. The teens each do their best to fit into their respective cliques but it becomes apparent that naive new girl Sandy Dumbrowski and too-cool-for-school bad boy Danny Zuko shared a secret summer romance. What is not so clear is how far their fling progressed. As peer pressure from the ‘T-Birds’ (a gang of cool dudes with greased hair and black leather jackets) and the ‘Pink Ladies’ (the poodle-skirt wearing popular girls, led by sharp-tongued Rizzo) mounts, will Sandy and Danny ever admit they have found the one that they want?
With Grease, audiences really do have a rather good idea of what to expect and fans are hopelessly devoted to the phenomenon it has become. After all, the 1978 film starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta is a cult classic and the unforgettable songs and characters have achieved iconic status. The current touring production opens with the orchestra rocking out above the stage, giving seasoned fans and newcomers alike the chance to show their appreciation for the tunes to come. Each instrumentalist has a solo spot and the anticipation builds.
My expectations were keenly met by this production. The staging throughout is fast-paced and Terry Parsons’ sets cleverly capture the haunts that mattered for an American teenager in the fifties – the locker room, the bleachers, the school prom, the burger bar, the drive-in movie theatre. Andreane Neofitou’s costumes are spot-on. Colourful and fashion-forward for the Pink Ladies, laid-back for the T-Birds and just the right side of peculiar for the Beauty School Dropout dream scene.
King of cool Danny is played by Tom Parker, a member of boyband The Wanted. To go from pop singer to musical theatre lead is quite a leap but Parker has the heartthrob’s suave moves and mannerisms down to a ‘T’ and his vocals soar. Sometimes, he does not seem to stand out as significantly from the rest of the T-Bird gang as you might expect the actor portraying the character of Danny to. However, I think this is testament to the fact that each of the T-Birds all give tremendous performances, rather than Parker leaving us “wanting” in his portrayal.
Danielle Hope is our prim and proper Sandy. She was the winner of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a Dorothy in 2010 BBC television programme Over the Rainbow and has since been cast in a variety of West End shows and touring productions. (I last saw her at Milton Keynes Theatre in The Sound of Music in May 2015). In Grease, Sandy’s character evolves so that the cardigan-wearing girl next door becomes a blonde bombshell in a catsuit. Hope captures Sandy’s wide-eyed innocence with sincerity yet makes her transformation into Danny’s fantasy woman by the final scenes believable. While Hope’s angelic voice certainly suits Sandy’s wholesome nature, her comedy timing and dramatic presence ultimately ensure that she has what it takes to deliver in such a well-known role.
Louisa Lytton, of EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing fame, is an assertive Rizzo. She has the posture and the condescending looks just right and, despite her small stature, is a saucy force to be reckoned with when interacting with both the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds. Rizzo is a sarcastic girl with a “reputation” and her big numbers are the cheeky send-up of Sandy ‘Look At Me I’m Sandra Dee’ and the defiant ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’. Lytton sings these beautifully, injecting her performance with an easy “couldn’t care less” attitude that never feels overbearing or forced.
Ryan Heenan as the guitar-strumming, stuttering Doody and Callum Evans as hip-shaking science swot Eugene both deserve a special mention for their hilarious performances. Otherwise, memorable song and dance numbers include the choreography-saturated ‘Shakin’ At The High School Hop’, ‘Born To Hand Jive’ and, of course, ‘Greased Lightnin’’. Certainly, the T-Birds are wonderfully in sync for ‘Greased Lightnin’’. The car itself is a majestic bit of kit and the pyrotechnics when it backfires shake everyone up with a little theatrical excitement. Still, although it is atmospheric to feel your seat rumbling with the bass of the music, it all feels a little loud compared to the singing. It’s such a shame to not be able to hear the lyrics perfectly, even if we do all know them.
In its entirety, Grease looks and sounds amazing. Arlene Phillips’ choreography is youthful and energetic and will have you wanting to jump up onto your feet so that you can join in. The finale in particular will have you secretly wishing you were brave enough to start dancing in the aisles. A mash-up medley, it sees the whole cast bust an impressive move or two while singing their way through a whole jukebox of tunes featured earlier in the show. Safe to say, you’ll have a hard time sitting still!
Many musicals have a moral message but Grease avoids trying to instil values and instead focuses on giving audiences a taste of teenage life in the 1950s. It’s all about having fun and your lasting impression will be that you were well and truly entertained from start to finish.
The summer days are now drifting away so it was great to see so many children in the audience (some even sporting mini leather jackets and flouncy fifties-inspired skirts!), enjoying an evening outing before the autumn term begins. Undoubtedly, Grease has a universal appeal. While older generations were reliving their riotous youth with a seat-shimmy here and a hand jive there, the youngsters seemed to be getting equally swept up in the electrifyin’ onstage action. There were plenty of smiles and attempts to chant “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-wop-bam-boom” during the interval, at any rate.
My final verdict? This sunny musical boasts a sing-along soundtrack, a simple boy-meets-girl storyline and slick staging. Grease is guaranteed to leave you basking in its warmth as you boogie your way out of the auditorium!
Grease continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 2 September 2017.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.