It’s pretty hard to get ‘the greatest musical ever’ wrong. Sure enough, this month’s production at Brighton’s Theatre Royal delivers all the pomaded and leather-jacketed escapism you could ask for.
Starring Tom Parker of boyband The Wanted, and Danielle Hope, winner of 2010’s TV contest ‘Over the Rainbow’, the production went for a star-studded cast. Hope had the trickier of the roles, and was satisfyingly plausible as both the goodie-two-shoes and her post-makeover version. The pair’s interplay on stage perfectly hit the charm of the subject – kept largely apart on opposite sides, together only when alone or maintaining their cool aloofness.
Worthy mentions, too, are deserved by the even more impressive supporting cast. Kennickie (Tom Senior) and Rizzo (Louisa Lytton)’s background dynamics were worth keeping your eye on even while the supposed plot is going on front and centre. Scenes were choreographed to give every character the chance to shine – most notably Ryan Heenan’s whimsical musical turn as Doody. All of this set the mood for what was a production focussed, in the end, on showing the audience a simple good time for a couple of hours.
Most pleasing of all was the presence of a live band, largely hidden behind the set but given their moments to show off their absurd talent levels. Rock ‘n’ Roll with a distinctly jazzy flavour – and it worked a treat with this fun-loving production.
I was most fond, too, of the surprisingly funny breaks of humour scattered throughout. Danny and Sandy’s first (re)meeting is top of the bunch, capturing the absurdity of trying to stay cool while inwardly freaking out (they could learn from a trip to Sussex library). Outside of the wild love for the hit numbers, audience reaction was strongest here – probably because it was the freshest take this production brought. There was more than a hint of ‘this is already silly so lets enjoy it’.
For me that’s the lasting magic of Grease, and something this production captures wonderfully. We understand this is a fantasised 1950s, a perfect form of all the cliché high school dramas we grew up with, and that much of the time what’s happening is fundamentally silly. But I broke into a (albeit slightly bemused) smile from the start of the first jazzy musical setpiece and more or less didn’t stop until the end of the last curtain call.
Staging design brought all the glitz and glamour you would expect – strobe lighting took over musical numbers and lending everything a nostalgic polaroid feel. At the same time, the rustic intimacy of the setting is preserved. No amount of Hollywood can change that a milkshake bar is, fundamentally, a milkshake bar – and the beauty comes from that simplicity and relatability.
The only real criticism that could be levelled at the production was some of the more sentimental, serious numbers were lost a bit, and came across as more short breaks to catch your breath in between the more uplifting hits. There was at times a lack of balance, not least in the singing styles and abilities of the two leads; and while I appreciate the self-consciousness of the fun-loving approach, that didn’t need to be at the expense of other emotions. Casting was a question here. It felt a little like a star-studded cast had been assembled to try and draw people in, when the play’s real freshness is precisely from the realisation that Grease is still somehow great just by being Grease.
In the end, though, there’s so much to love here that if you want something to let you smile solidly for two hours and leave your seat with a springier-step (and who doesn’t right now), I can’t think of anything better.