Thursday, January 31, 2013

'Grease' for the 21st century

Last night we went to the Court Theatre, Christchurch. Awfully regal name, redolent of Der Court Theater, Schleswig-Holstein and so forth. But there’s nothing regal about this one. It’s risen from the rubble of the earthquake in the old yards at Addington, and judging by last night it’s a vibrant success.

The show that was playing was that old bit of fun, Grease. I’ve seen Grease a lot, in fact the great Paul Bentley and I auditioned for the original London production, in 1973, singing a falsetto duet. But I haven’t seen it for 30 years, and in that time it has changed somewhat. Like Cabaret, it has been remade in function of its very successful film version. When Cabaret is done these days, the focus is on Liza Minelli Bowles: when Grease is played, it is firmly on J Travolta and O N John, somewhat to the detriment of the other characters. The hit songs from the film have infiltrated the score (to its great advantage) and by and large, Grease 21st century is an even jollier show than Grease 1972.

Grease more or less directs and choreographs itself, and mostly, last night, it was wisely allowed to do so. In fact, the one bit of originality – casting a soap actor with The Perfect Body (Mike Edward) to do a body-builder’s rendition of ‘Beauty School Dropout’ with the deliciously acrobatic Frenchy (Fiona Crossett – last seen being similarly treated as Rumpleteazer) was the best bit of fun all evening. But I do wish Christchurch would get out of the old mass routine in Ralph Reader lines (Lynne and van Laast might not have lived) ... and I spotted some movements that were decidedly not born in the 1950s!

My only grumble was – too loud. Everybody sang relentlessly loudly and projected madly through the exuberant sound system till their words and lines were fuzzed into a blur. Especially the folk putting on funny voices. And the arrangements of some songs were way too hefty. Anyway, why do we need individual mics in a little auditorium like the Court?  I’m told it was better if you sat further back, but I paid for my pensioner’s seat in Row E and I like to hear the words …

But enough of that. Let’s return to the actual performance, and meet the guy who was the undisputed champion of the night. The brain behind what was a very good Grease indeed. I mean, the show’s casting director. A wise senior director in the West End once said to me: get your casting right, and 90 percent of your job is done. I wholly agree. And last night was a fine example of what he was talking about. The show was cast to within an inch of perfection, and the young people gave performances which, especially vocally, left nothing to be desired.

As was right for Grease new version, the ‘stars’ of the evening were the Sandy and the Danny. The John and the Travolta. Well, I’m here to tell you: give me the Christchurch pair any day.
Lauren Marshall (Sandy) was younger and prettier than her film equivalent, acted the part in the only way possible, and sang her music stunningly. ‘Totally Devoted to you’ was the musical showstopper of the night for me (others preferred the bodybuilder, but I’m not like that), the Prom Night duet with an excellent Patty (Kelly Hocking) was a delight, although lets not forget the piece is a parody. Miss Marshall is the Sandy of everyone’s dreams.
Matt McFarlane as Danny rendered her nothing in talent and charm. He is definitely the best Zuko I have ever seen, singing and dancing impeccably, and best of all playing the character with infinitely more wryness and humour than Mr T, and a non-greasy twinkle that makes you understand just why he is the catch of the School. His quieter moments were the highlight of what little ‘drama’ the show has. Always excepting Frenchy’s failure.

The real drama should be, of course, the pregnancy of Rizzo (Jade Steele) and the distress of Kenickie (Michael Murphy). Both players were excellent, but in Grease of today, they are somewhat submerged by the Sandy/Danny axis. I’m sure some dialogue on the subject has gone astray. As it was, Kenickie gets remembered only for a copybook (but surely, too long) version of ‘Greased Lightning’ and Rizzo (who, I'm certain, wouldn’t be allowed to wear that first costume to school) for a spiky ‘Sandra Dee’ and a strangely metamorphised version of ‘Best Thing I Could Do’. What used to be a more-grown-up-than-the-others point number, and a lovely contrast to all the youthful exuberance, has become a cabaret number. Splendidly sung, but I liked it better smaller.

Often, when I go to a show, I hone in on one particular player. It’s the old theatrical agent/casting director in me. Last night was no exception. I went head over heels for Cameron Douglas as Doody. His one number was a stunner … what else can I say? And he stood out in the ensembles … though not in a bad way. He has an interesting look. Very castable.

Adam Standring as a delightfully gawky and parodic Eugene, and Rutene Spooner (Roger) and Lucy Porter (Jan) as the heavyweights provided the comedy. Spooner, when he didn’t speak too fast, gave a very endearing performance.

Martyn Wood, Kathleen Burns, Tainui Kuru (culpably under-used) and Angela Hegarty as a dashing dancing Cha-Cha di Gregorio completed a fine group of (mostly) thoroughly young and believable ‘high school students’.

Three cheers again for the casting director.

In spite of a curious and unnecessary curtain re-recital of the night’s music, in a fashion which has become painfully spread (I felt I was at Buddy), I came out humming ‘Best Thing I could Do’. Then the night’s most enjoyable ensemble, ‘Summer Nights’, then …  and the happily chattering audience hummed their favourites too … the songs of Grease are enormously hummable … and this audience had had a wow of a time.

So, all in all, a big success. In every way. For last night was an extension of the season, and the house – as for the past three months – was SRO. So I guess I was wrong in crticising the choice of show. Grease is clearly what Christchurch wants to see in spades, and not something slightly less well-used and less amateur-played. I guess the money made out of the Christmas musical will support a clutch of minority-interest, loss-making plays during the year, and when the coffers get low out comes another musical with ‘names’ (which I gather some of these young folk already are) in the cast to fill them up again. Well, the National Theatre and many of the world’s opera houses are guilty of the same schema, so why not?  Long live the musical. Even the old, over-used ones, and the filmed ones ... as long as they’re played by as talented folk as Grease was last night.

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