Theatre Review: Grease - Edinburgh Playhouse ✭✭✭

Photo by Paul Coltas

Review by Anne Mackie

Grease. Many would argue the 1970’s rom-com is the most celebrated musical of all time. In fact, Channel 4’s 2008 ‘100 Greatest Musicals’ chart tips the cult classic as THE top film musical. And why would you argue? We all know every drunken soiree ends with a bellowing (perfectly out of tune) rendition of the infamous Grease Megamix. However, as we gave our own larynxes a rest, and left this classic narrative to the pro’s, we have one question - is the 2017 UK tour ‘the word that you heard’? Does the show ‘go together like rama-lama-lama-di-diggity-dingy-dong’? Unfortunately, we are not quite so ‘hopelessly devoted’ to this new production…

You all know the story...

Set at Rydell High school in the late 1950’s, Grease focuses on the morally engaged Sandy Dumbrowski and heart-throb T-Bird leader Danny Zuko; a pair of teens who find themselves unexpectedly thrown together for their final year of school after a summer fling. The plot progresses to follow them and their friends as they navigate the complexities of peer pressure, politics, personal core values, and love…all melodically tied up in infectiously dynamic score of early rock and roll.
Admittedly, the narrative provokes a controversial message but it is the widely celebrated music that keeps this production on its toes. A notion that is immediately apparent as Musical Director Griff Johnson busts out a specially arranged overture with his terrific six piece band who sit pride of place above the stage. Throughout the course of the show, there are many musical highlights, but unfortunately, in this case, there are also a handful of poorly performed low lights. It is here that we must draw attention to the star casting which infinitely lets this production down.

Tom Parker (The Wanted) plays an underwhelming Danny Zuko, lacking the cool, smooth qualities associated with any slick John Travolta wannabe. Instead, this charm and attraction is lost under a clearly nervous and hesitant pop star. Parker’s dialogue pacing was slow and he appeared to lack any power and pizazz vocally – most notably in his rendition of Sandy. Similarly, co-star and acclaimed musical theatre icon Danielle Hope (BBC’s Over the Rainbow) plays a more equipped, natural Sandy but lacks the spark and drive expected from a renowned West End leading lady. Hope has the musical ability to do more vocally - her somewhat monotonous rendition of Hopelessly Devoted to You was crying out for a big belt climax; something she later executed in her reprise of Look At Me I’m Sandra Dee, ultimately leading the audience to erupt into a well-deserved applause. However, it is Strictly Come Dancing’s Louisa Lytton as the fiery Pink Lady leader, Rizzo, who proved the weakest vocalist in the company. Her pinnacle moment in There Are Worse Things I Could Do lacked no believable character, emotion or vocal strength – a stark difference to her dialogue/scene work, which was delivered with just the right amount of brazen confidence, sass and poise. Entirely suitable for the role of Rizzo. It is safe to say the current UK tour’s celebrity casting has not served any favours on this occasion and although it did not ruin the production value, it certainly did not enhance it.

It is important, in this case, to praise the work of the supporting cast. Most notably, Ryan Heenan as Doody gives a polished, well-rounded performance as the coy, gawky T-bird; showcasing his musical skill superbly in a suitably inspired delivery of Those Magic Changes and Rock n Roll Party Queen – two of the show’s undeniable highlights. Equally as strong in the ‘Pink Lady camp’ is Rhiannon Chesterman as the quirky beauty school dropout, Frenchy. Chesterman portrays an infectious characterisation that is instantly adorable and warm. Top comedic credit, however, must go to Callum Evans as Rydell’s ultimate geek, Eugene. Evans comic timing was poised to perfection in his highly amusing interpretation of the show’s iconic loser.

Director David Gilmore and his creative associates have undeniably endeavoured to pack an ‘electrifying’ punch in respect of the 2017 revival; utilising pyrotechnics, flashing lights, a miraculously glitzy car transformation, and expert, high energy movement by choreographer Arlene Philips. However, this seems to be where the real pizazz ends, with the creative emphasis being placed more on the ‘aesthetic spectacle’ rather than the importance of character development.
Overall, Grease will always be ‘the word that you heard’. It does what it says on the tin and proves a show that audiences will rarely tire of. It’s much celebrated cult status indicates it is a production that should not be remoulded or renewed per say, but unfortunately, in this case, the 2017 revival proves a little stale at times. Was it ‘the one that I wanted’? Regrettably not, but the overall potential was irrefutably there.