The comical musical Grease seems to have been around in the theatre as long as I have. I remember, in my far-off twenties, attending an audition call for the London production with my pal, Paul Bentley. It was late in the day, it was a rotten wee hall, every hopeless non-singer in town seemed to have been in, and the panel were looking weary and fed up. I think they were rather pleased when we came on together. When we finished, they were all smiles, and the boss told us ‘we had quite made his day’. No, they didn’t need an operatic basso, and a comic heldentenor, but we’d read the poorly-written audition notice uncomprehendingly. It asked for a falsetto singer. Well, we’d recently performed ‘Pensacola’ (Dames at Sea) in a Benefit at Harrogate Opera House, so we gave them that, all burlesque stops full out. I was Mona, dancing and singing in an ear-splitting soprano.
We didn’t get the job. He was very sorry, but he just couldn’t see how to use us. He should have. The London show was pretty lifeless.
Grease -- via stage and screen -- is now a standard. Deservedly so. I saw it last year, performed with loads of life, and some grand performances, at the Christchurch Court Theatre. And this month there has been a lot of chat amongst musical facebookers about something called Grease – Live. Live? On Televison? Oh, well. Anyway, people seemed either to love it or hate it. Then it was announced, with more gusto than effective taste, for NZ telly. I ventured, ‘should I watch it’? ‘Don’t’ warned facebook … which knows I prefer my shows live and untampered-with. So we watched our favourite Australian Masterchef. But come Sunday eve, the nadir of New Zealand television, Wendy revealed that she had taped it. So we sat down to watch a recorded version of a TV version of Grease – Live. Sort of.
Did we like it? It was all right. Like the curate’s egg. In parts. I can’t see for the life of me why we had to lose some of the best songs ('It’s Raining on Prom Night’, ‘Alone at a Drive in Movie’), why the story and dialogue had to be changed (they actually said ‘cool’ in what was supposed to be 1959), why girls were pasted in to ‘Greased Lightning’ and boys into the cheer-leader squad, why Rump was cut … not one of the changes was anywhere near for the better, and the unfamiliar (to me) musical material was excruciatingly dull. I still don’t know what the lady was up to, howling out what seems to have been an introductory song. But … Grease is made of stern stuff. Like The Boyfriend, it’s not so much a burlesque, but what Sandy Wilson called ‘a joyful recreation’ of a much loved (in retrospect) era, it is unpretentious, melodious, funny and sometimes even a little serious. It is hard to knock down, no matter how you fiddle with it.
So did I enjoy it, in spite of it’s not being the kosher Grease? It was all right. In parts. And very right in one or two. What first? Cast? Production? Let’s do cast. I do not know who anyone in the cast is/was. I’m sure they are ‘celebrities’ of the 21st century kind. But that’s all right. This show doesn’t need or want stars. It needs to be played a bunch of joyous young singing-dancing teenagers. Humph. This was the oldest set of teenagers I’ve seen in a while. If Rydell High has students un-graduated at that age, teaching standards there must be abysmal. The Danny looked over-thirty. Which was a shame. Because he’s a fine singer-dancer-actor with a great twinkle … The triumph was the Sandy. She did look like a teenager, and act like one, and her singing of ‘Totally Devoted’ (of course, the film hits are now an accepted part of the score) was absolutely grandiosely spot on. The other kids each pounded out their numbers – Rizzo did a fine ‘Worst Thing I Can Do’, Doody was capable in ‘Those Magic Changes’, Marty sang all right in an opened-up production number made up of ‘Freddie, My Love’ but you couldn’t take her seriously as a high-school student, Frenchie’s part was ruined and she had little chance, and WHERE was Frankie Avalon? The wonderful teen-angel bit was given to an amateurish (purposely?) trio and a set of bumbling women in hairdryers. I nearly gave up at that point. But … it’s Grease. We had a splendid Johnny Casino to make up for no Frankie Avalon … and … there were only a couple of other cast members who gave me the shudders. Even Wendy, who doesn’t complain about actors, couldn’t abide the frightful ‘look-at-me’ performance of Blanche, and Patty Simcox will doubtless get first class honours … from the School for coarse over-acting.
The production? It’s hard to make an abstraction of it from the changes made to script and score. I didn’t mind the opening up of some bits of numbers into fantasy … it was all right. And lively. If aged. The choreography? A bit excessive, and I’d have liked it better if ‘Greased Lightning’ had been just boys. Teenage boys. But I guess it's what a TV audience wants in 2016. Strange. Costumes … well, I don’t know what one wears at High School. Some were copies of previous ones … apart from Marty’s green thing, they were all right.
But, when all is said and done, I lasted till the end, when ‘live’ suddenly happened, and I really did very much enjoy spending the evening with the dazzling Sandy and the elderly but delightful Danny … if not some of the others and the tacked-in rubbish.
I’m still a little puzzled, though. Why was such a fuss made of it being ‘Live’. Was the title just to assure folk they weren’t getting Travolta/O N John? Oh! It was BROADCAST live? Why?
Actually, why was the fuss made at all? A fair enough evening, with fine bits and not-fine bits, and about 70 percent of the show. Yeah, it was all right.
PS Of course, the cast is on line. So credit where credit’s due. SuperSandy was Julianne Hough, dishy Danny was Aaron Tveit, Joe Jonas was Johnny … and I’m none the wiser.