I like to consider myself quite a musicals aficionado. I’ve now seen Grease at least three times on stage and the 1978 film countless times. I was well aware that there were a number of songs from the stage show that were cut from the film, but I didn’t really realise just how different the original show was to the iconic Paramount picture which holds legions of fans.
The current production of Grease at New Theatre, Oxford uses the original, early 70s script written by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs, which is set in a Chicago high school (rather than California like the film.) We were gifted tickets as part of press night.
“People know Grease through the film as a candyfloss, rose-tinted, cartoony approach to Americana. It’s an escapist look back at the rough-and-tumble of girls and boys making it through high school,” says Director, Nikolai Foster in the show’s programme.
“[Casey and Jacobs] originally wrote Grease as a play that detailed their own lives growing up as working-class kids on the South Side of Chicago in 1950s. It’s a very different proposition from the beautiful bubblegum bounce of the Hollywood show.”
“It was about kids battling through high school, bullying, adolescence and sexuality. As the stage show became more successful, more songs were added and the original heart of the piece was taken over by the exuberance of rock and roll. Our script goes right back to that gritty, greasy truth of who those kids were.”
On reading the programme interviews after the show, a lot now falls into place. This production felt different to previous shows I’d seen (for example, the previous touring production we saw in 2017). For starters, Martha Kirby’s Sandy Dubrowski is far less of a pushover.
When she catches Rizzo taking the Michael, she properly gives the bitch what for and as for Danny, acting like a right chump as soon as school starts, she’s quick to call him out – “Tell me, one thing that any of your friends have really achieved…”
As an adult, I’ve always felt that Sandy’s big transformation at the end of the show, although impressive, rather sent out the wrong message: ‘Change who you are for someone else…’ In this sense, I felt that it was right that Sandy’s behaviour should have a bit of an update.
Sandy’s big entrance is proceeded by dialogue between chief cheerleader and teacher. Miss Lynch says to Patty Simcox, who is crushing on Danny, that she too fell for a boy from the wrong tracks but never did anything about it and let it pass her by. Her advice to Patty being to go out and embrace life.
Of course, the audience knows that we’re building to Sandy’s grand entrance, new rebel leather jacket and all. But here I think that sentiment is more about Sandy’s choice to make a difference in her appearance, to grab life by the balls as it were and to meet Danny halfway, after his pathetic attempts of joining the track team.
There are several new-old songs in this production. And by that, I mean songs which were in the original stage show and which were dropped from the film as others were added. This includes ‘How Big I’m Gonna Be’ sung by Danny, played by Dan Partridge. Danny sings this after Sandy tells him he’s never going to be anything and the song is about his frustration, pride and defiance as a working-class boy.
DJ Vince Fontaine, played by Darren Bennett, played a particularly pervy, sleazy radio host which often left my skin crawling.
Of course, Peter Andre stars as Teen Angel and ‘Beauty School Dropout’ was an excellent number – in some respects it was a shame to only see Peter for those five glorious minutes.
Watching this musical, there were times when I wondered if we’d strayed into West Side Story. The Burger Palace Boys (or T-Birds as many would know them) square up to rival gang The Flaming Dukes for a rumble and the police officer is particularly keen to avoid delinquency. I don’t think that this was a coincidence.
As director Nikolai Foster explains: “There is a reason all these great musicals, whether it’s West Side Story or Grease, last through the decades. It’s not simply because people what to have a good time and have a bit of a dance at the end.
“It’s because the characters and story are rooted in the political and social landscapes of the times the plays are set. People recognise the truth and reality of these lives and the daily battles that people like them are faced with on a daily basis.”
In many respects, the characters through dialogue were grittier than their film counterparts. Dom Hutchinson’s boy-next-door charms meant his Kenickie seemed more sensitive than rebel-maker, whilst Ryan Anderson’s Roger had a great voice ala Frankie Vallie. Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky’s Rizzo was both sassy and cutting.
“We’re going to the original source material and serving it well, with imagination and integrity. All great musicals are rooted in a social reality; audiences recognise this and respond positively when treated with respect and presented with intelligent productions of musicals.”
And that’s exactly what you can expect from this tour – an intelligent musical, a grown-up Grease.
Tickets can be purchased from the New Theatre box office on George Street, by ringing 0844 871 3020 or by visiting our website at www.atgtickets.com/oxford