Long before there was High School Musical, the quintessential musical of the high school variety was Grease. Written for the stage in 1971, the plot celebrates American 1950s ‘greaser’ culture in an all-singing, all-dancing love story. The 1978 film adaptation positioned it as a pop cultural classic, making stars of its lead players and providing the soundtrack for every school dance and suburban wedding for the foreseeable future. I, for one, spent many hours singing Grease songs into my hairbrush in the ’70s … and ’80s … and last week, as it happens. Grease is back and touring Australia in a revamped multimillion dollar production. Don’t miss this chance to dance in the aisles with the kids from Rydell High. I rocked (and rolled) up to Brisbane’s QPAC to check it out last week.
Grease is a story of star crossed lovers and adolescent angst. Danny and Sandy’s summer holiday romance is quickly trampled by peer pressure when sweet-as-sugar girl meets cool-as-a-cucumber boy in their senior high school year. Danny’s leather-jacketed gang of T-Birds and Sandy’s new BFFs, the Pink Ladies, are not going to let these two off lightly on the road to a romantic reunion. A range of timeless teen themes including fitting in with peers, sexuality, social difference and adolescent rebellion are played out amidst a clever combination of 50s crooner tunes and 70s pop anthems. Older kids will love this show as much as their parents loved it in decades past – just be prepared for some questionable song lyrics. My husband reminded me during the show that I had no right to tut tut about Music These Days when I was happily singing about the T-Birds’ ‘pussy wagon’!
This latest Australian production comes to us direct from London’s West End, where it has played on and off for the past 20 years. Many of the stand out set design pieces – like a fully bedazzled ‘Greased Lightening’ car – were imported for the tour. As Danny and Sandy, Rob Mills and Gretel Scarlett have all the right moves and voices that complement each other perfectly. Mills is becoming a musical standout in Australia right now, having had huge success in productions of Wicked and Legally Blonde. Millsy has charisma in buckets and velvet vocal chords, whilst Scarlett brought a tear to my eye with her touching Hopelessly Devoted.
The script has been adapted for Australian audiences in some unusual ways. Sandy, for example, has an Australian accent while the rest of the cast sound American. This echoes the casting of Olivia Newton John in the film version: the actual character was never written as an Australian – they only wrote that aspect of the film for our Liv – so, had you seen the show in London, Sandy would have been from Chicago. Make sense? This is the tricky thing about a show that is so well-known and well-loved: it becomes impossible to enjoy it without comparing it to an earlier incarnation. This version seems to dance in and out of the film comparisons. The storyline has notable differences from the film – no car race, for example, and a different order of songs. Some characters are reinvented (tough chick Rizzo is softer here than the film) whereas others are direct impersonations (Danny’s cool dude chuckle is pure Travolta). Other major changes are brought about through casting and some work better than others. The quirky use of Bert Newton as the DJ with the mostest Vince Fontaine is effective and allows for the smooth inclusion of Aussie in-jokes; whereas the rewriting of Beauty School Dropout to showcase Todd McKenney’s lairy Teen Angel is a disappointment, leaving Francine Cain’s deliciously downtrodden Frenchie too far in the shadows.
Grease is being promoted as the No 1 Party Musical and it won’t disappoint anyone in the market for a creative, colourful, loud and lively musical party. The choreography is particularly outstanding with its nods to the 1950s jitterbug traditions alongside contemporary moves that simply light up the stage. Swirling skirts, catchy tunes and that lightening-fast hand jive will keep audiences coming back to ol’ Rydell for many years to come.
I received complimentary tickets to this performance thanks to ACMN (yay me!) but all opinions are my own. Grease the Musical is in Brisbane until October before moving to other capital cities.