Review: ‘Grease: the Musical’ at Leeds Grand Theatre

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  • Adam Bruce, United Kingdom Critic

Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1971 musical ‘Grease’ has had a long and successful history, bolstered largely in part by the well-known 1978 film adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. In spite of this, the stage version doesn’t enjoy as many major revivals as its contemporaries and can more often be seen performed in schools and by community groups. Now, however, the Curve Theatre in Leicester has revived the musical for a brand new tour that promises to bring audiences closer to the feel of the musical’s original roots.

In case you’re not familiar with it, ‘Grease’ brings us to the fictional Rydell High School in 1950s America. Danny Zuko (Dan Partridge) is the leader of gang of greasers named the Burger Palace Boys. While he spends most of his time womanizing and getting into trouble with his friends, during the summer break he meets Sandy Dumbrowski (Martha Kirby), and when she starts at Rydell upon his return we see their romance slowly blossom. Along the way, we meet a variety of characters from across the school as they navigate their way through adolescence against the backdrop of a soundtrack inspired by the 50s hits from the height of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

Back when he directed the production in 2016, director Nikolai Foster expressed a desire to put the grit back into the musical after a long period of audiences being fixated by the sheen of the glossy Hollywood movie that has become a cult classic. Two years later in this revival, Foster’s production continues to do exactly that. By unearthing some of the musical’s original songs (which are often overshadowed by those made extremely popular by the film) keeping Jacobs and Casey’s original dialogue and excavating the truth found within the musical’s tackling of timeless issues, Foster has crafted a truly special piece.

Working with choreographer Arlene Phillips and set & costume designer Colin Richmond, Foster masterfully evokes the rich narrative, themes and atmospheres that once permeated throughout the vulgar, gritty musical back in 1971. The storytelling throughout is clear and uncluttered, with the scenography and performances working together in a streamlined, harmonious fashion to bring audiences face to face with the original source material of an energetic, punchy piece of theatre that remains strikingly relevant to our current world. Foster brings the issues to the forefront of the piece and tackles them with directorial clarity and sensitivity, beautifully weaving them into the fabric of the performances and resulting in the major themes of the piece being conveyed seamlessly to the audience.

It’s clear that Foster has hopes that this new, refreshing major revival will pull in a wide target audience, though I can imagine a good portion of that target audience may not necessarily be expecting this version, which is almost completely different to its filmic cousin from the past. For this reason alone, Foster’s ‘Grease’ carries an even more unique selling point, and when you experience the sense of truth pulsating beneath the feet of the performers, it’s astonishing to see the difference between the two separate creative enterprises.

What’s also astonishing is the commitment and dedication of every member of the ensemble as they breathe new life into the musical. Their performances brim with energy and are expertly crafted, and it is a joy to watch as they uphold the essence of the original musical with respect and integrity. Their vocals soar and they execute Phillips’ character driven choreography with flair and finesse, and their infectious energy touches the audience and invites them to feel a part of not only the journeys of the characters, but also the journey that this important production is embarking on. Amidst Richmond’s set design (which smartly incorporates elements of the American high school and urban accoutrements) and whilst being buttressed by Guy Hoare’s atmospheric lighting design and Tom Marshall’s well-rounded sound design, the performers expertly bring this timeless musical to life with pride and care.

This new production of ‘Grease’ is certainly a must-see. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of the production’s history, a general musical theatre lover or just looking for an enjoyable evening out, there’s something in this new production for everyone. ‘Grease’ is full of fun, gritty truth and is one of the most exciting productions this year.

 

‘Grease’ is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 20th July. For more information, tickets, a full cast & creative list and tour information, visit: https://greasethemusicalontour.com/