Musical review: Grease: The Musical, Her Majesty’s Theatre

It's colourful and energetic certainly, but this production does not do anything to update the original flavour.
Grease. A group of musical theatre performers dressed in 50s clothes sit and stand on the stage facing forward.

Grease is like junk food; it tastes good but can be problematic in the long run. This latest touring production presented by John Frost is colourful and energetic, but the grossly outdated sexual politics remain uncomfortably front and centre. Let’s be real, I’m not expecting any new iteration of Grease to radically reinvent the wheel, but bringing something fresh and interesting to the material would certainly be welcomed. With this production, it’s strictly a case of rinse and repeat.

I was obsessed with the Grease movie growing up; however, I’ve never seen it on stage. Experiencing this version, I was surprised by just how flimsy the plot is. For the uninitiated, Grease revolves around a bunch of teenagers at Rydell High School in the late 1950s. Sandy (Annelise Hall) and Danny (Joseph Spanti) have a summer fling and reunite at the start of the school year. He behaves like a d**k and proceeds to gaslight Sandy as she tries to fit in with her new schoolmates and continue her romance with Danny.

His gang – the T-Birds – fixe up an old hot-rod, “bad girl” Rizzo (Mackenzie Dunn) has a pregnancy scare, and there’s a dance competition in the school gym. Sandy appears to have some kind of epiphany that vaguely has something to do with deciding to chill out a bit and change her personality to win back Danny and forgive his toxic masculinity. And that’s pretty much it. Thankfully the stage version incorporates songs from the original musical and the film, and they are still certified bangers after all these years.  

After a vocally shaky prologue with Danny and Sandy canoodling under the summer sun, Grease bursts into life with the title song. The large central revolve on stage is initially put to good use introducing the era, setting and central characters in an exciting and propulsive way. However, the set design is overwhelmed by two massive white bleachers that are constantly wheeled about and reconfigured to represent different locations to varying degrees of success.

Worst of all, many scene changes are done by the stage crew in full view of the audience and several set pieces take a long time to fall into place. This leads to the audience being distracted at the start and/or end of several scenes and musical numbers.

As these bleachers dominate the stage, we get several scenes staged in similar ways with no real sense of location. They also greatly limit the dynamic choreography by forcing the performers too far downstage. The ‘Greased Lightnin’’ number is a standout because the bleachers are wheeled off and the production finally has room to move. 

The other production elements are more successful – the costumes are brightly coloured in a comic book style, the wigs look great, retro projections add some kitschy fun and the band sound amazing. Special shoutout to the incredible saxophone players!

The cast assembled for this production of Grease are full of energy and they actually look like teenagers, which is refreshing. Mackenzie Dunn’s rendition of Rizzo’s ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ brings the house down. Brianna Bishop is hilarious as flirty Marty, Keanu Gonzalez is an insanely athletic Kenickie, and Andy Seymour and Caitlin Spears are adorably goofy as Roger and Jan. The stunt of casting of music legend Marcia Hines as Teen Angel pays off brilliantly in the camp-fever dream that is ‘Beauty School Dropout.’ 

Read: Book review: Burn, Melanie Saward

Grease will always pack in the crowds thanks to the popularity of the classic film and the unescapable pull of nostalgia. When this show is revived again in another 10 years, as it assuredly will be, let’s hope a future creative team can bring something new to the stage. Until then we’ll continue to turn off our brains and hand-jive away. Cue the mega mix.

Grease: The Musical
Her Majesty’s Theatre

Book, Music and Lyrics: Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Additional songs by Barry Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon
Director: Luke Joslin

Choreographer: Eric Giancola
Set and Costume Design: James Browne
Lighting Design: Trudy Dalgleish
Sound Design: Michael Waters

Grease will be performed in Melbourne until 10 March before touring to Sydney and Perth.     

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.