Grease the musical stops off at The Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh this week and takes us back in time to Rydell High school in 1959, and some of the most iconic stage show musical and film songs of the past 50 years. This is where the problems really start to begin though, and ever if a production is a victim of its own success then it is Grease, because Grease the 1971 musical and Grease the iconic 1978 film of the musical are two very different productions, but due to the huge popularity of the film, iconic songs from the film - “Grease” “Sandy”, “Hopelessley Devoted to You” and “You’re The One That I Want” – have been added into all the later stage productions of the show (original stage show songs being removed to make space for them) and the name of the gang is changed from The Burger Palace Boys to the T Birds (as per the film). What we have is a merger of two different productions (almost split into Act 1 and Act II), and it is not a seamless merger.
Grease the original musical is far from the watered down version we have before us now, and the original has a tough storyline that looks at many social issues of the underclass youth of 1950s USA, boy and girl gangs, gang violence, ethnic tensions, teen pregnancies, moral attitudes of the time. Grease, like all the great musicals, is underpinned by a real story and when you start to dilute and remove that story, what is left is can come close to musical karaoke.
Grease also has one big problem, and that is due to the massive success of the film it is difficult for an audience not to have this imagery in their minds. Anyone around at the original release will remember that the film was a phenomenon and the music from the film was everywhere in 1978 and 1979. Over the years, the film has reached a status that few films ever reach and the portrayals of Danny and Sandy by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John were one of the great cinema pairings and anyone playing those two roles will forever be compared (often unfavourably and unfairly) to this iconic duo. The title roles of Danny and Sandy can be a bit of a poisoned chalice to any performer taking on these parts.
This is “Grease” the musical, and it has some of the most identifiable songs ever written for an audience to swiftly connect with, but that was not happening tonight, and although the audience slowly warmed up to this show and many were clapping and cheering towards the end, this connection should have been instant from the opening few bars of “Summer Nights”, and for some reason that I just cannot identify, this never happened…even when “Greased Lightnin’” got a pretty cool reception. Perhaps part of the reason is that for me Tom Parker seemed a little miscast in the title role of Danny. Yes, there is enormous singing talent and some serious dance moves there, but for some reason that supreme confidence that Danny should have just never came across, and Danny just blended in with the rest of the T Birds, and he should never do that. Danielle Hope as Sandy seemed to have similar problems at times – obvious talent, but somehow, none of the fragility and out of her depth in her surroundings that I expect from Sandy. Danielle did make a far better “Good Sandy” than a “Bad Sandy” though. Together though neither of our lead characters seemed to have any real connection to one another, simply singing the songs and doing the “moves”. One enduring question about Grease of course is always why Sandy has any interest in Danny after his behaviour at the drive-in cinema.
Louisa Layton as Rizzo gives one of the best performances in this show, and Rizzo is the one character who always brings “Grease” back to its social realistic roots, and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” is one of the most overlooked classic songs of the show. This is where the dramatic aspect of the show runs into trouble as there is not the back up around her that Louisa needs for this scene.
Despite everything though, the audience for the most part were leaving this show happy and singing some of their favourite songs from the show, and at the end of the day, if a stage musical can do that then it is working. Grease the musical overall just maybe needs greased a little more to get it working smoothly this time round.
Review by Tom King