Grease and the West End go together like... well, you get the idea. As the show nears the 50th anniversary of its West End debut, it feels fitting it returns to its previous home of the Dominion Theatre for a limited run. While there are a lot of shows to be excited about this year, this really was the one I wanted to see - having been one of the first musicals I ever saw, catching it at the Dominion when I was a kid (yes, I'm old), it felt special to be able to return there to see if this new production holds up the legacy of what is one of the most iconic musicals of stage and screen. But would this new version have me a blast?
Debuting on stage in 1971 before moving to Broadway the following year, Grease is better known for its iconic 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John (and its slightly less iconic sequel). Telling the story of the students of Rydell High, it is of course centred around the love story between Danny and Sandy whose summer romance spills over when they go back to school.
I'm always worried when any show is announced for the Dominion Theatre as it is a BIG space. Not just in terms of seating capacity but the stage too. The last production that played there (also based on a classic movie) didn't manage to fill the space which was one of its failures. I'm pleased to report Grease doesn't repeat this problem. This is a big show that makes the most of every inch of space that huge stage has to offer, with props spilling out into the theatre and a great use of lighting extending to the audience.
The production value is one of the biggest strengths of this new Grease with grand sets providing plenty for the large cast to play with. Gloriously designed by Colin Richmond and expertly directed by Nikolai Foster, the stage comes alive particularly on big numbers such as the rousing 'We Go Together' providing the kind of spectacle you'd hope to see on a stage that size. Jaw dropping choreography from Arlene Phillips is one of the strongest elements of Grease - whether it is an intimate number or a grand one, it is always mesmerising to watch. Brilliant projection design from Douglas O'Connell and a fantastically intense use of lighting from Ben Cracknell elevates this production to really create a feast for the senses.
Dan Partridge takes on the lead role of Danny Zuko. Full of charisma, he saunters around the stage with such cockiness, he is truly believable in the role. Proving Newton-John isn't the only Olivia who can deliver an amazing Sandy, Olivia Moore is incredible in the role, though her stage time does feel limited when compared to other characters, when she is there, she ensures all eyes are on her playing the sweet and loved up Sandy. Her take on 'Hopelessly Devoted To You' had her reaching notes I didn't think were humanly possible, creating one of the single best musical performances I have seen this year. Watching her as Sandy, you really do get the sense you are witnessing a star being born.
Peter Andre takes on the roles of Vince Fontaine and Teen Angel. Initially in the background for some of the cheesiest lines ever witnessed on a stage, he comes front and centre for his big act 2 numbers 'Beauty School Drop Out' and 'Hand Jive'. With great vocals and fantastic dancing (though Michael Jackson moves in 1959 is definitely a choice), he is a joy to watch even if he may not be quite able to match others in terms of his acting ability.
The entire cast is pretty outstanding, but some individuals that need highlighting include Jocasta Almgill whose complicated Rizzo becomes one of the standouts of the show, particularly with her incredible rendition of 'There Are Worse Things I Can Do' which I'd argue has never sounded better. Eloise Davies is fabulous as Frenchy, Paul French is a great Kenickie while Jake Reynolds and Damon Gould are standouts in a fantastic group of Burger Palace Boys as Doody and Sonny,
Grease is known for its classic songbook from Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, with no shortage of memorable numbers. Featuring some tweaked arrangements by Sarah Travis, they are all performed with such energy and talent, it really does give them a new lease of life. ‘You’re The One That I Want’ is as perfect as it gets with ‘Summer Nights’, ‘Grease’, ‘Greased Lightning’ and ‘Sandy’ every bit as satisfying as you would expect. Some lesser-known numbers are just as good, with Noah Harrison and Mary Moore providing an unexpected highlight as Roger and Jan in 'Mooning' with Noah showcasing some truly beautiful vocals.
This version restores some of the grit from the original stage production and is far less cutesy than the film adaptation. It is hard to ignore that some aspects of the show haven’t aged well, particularly the attitudes of the men towards women including some deeply misogynistic lyrics (you know the ones I mean), an uncomfortable mildly homophobic moment and the journey of Sandys story which sends a terrible message that you need to change in order to get a guy to like you. Thankfully society has moved on from these attitudes so it best to view these less pleasing elements as a reminder of history and how far we have come.
It is always hard to bring back a show that is so loved across multiple generations – it is always going to be open to comparison against the version you know and love. Wirth this production, they have got the balance right – making the audience feel nostalgic with all the key moments they know and love, while bringing in new elements to make it feel fresh. Fantastic staging and a truly brilliant cast make this production incredibly satisfying to watch and pure unashamed theatre joy. Maybe part of it was down to the nostalgia but I really couldn’t have loved this more if I tried. Grease is the word… and my word, is it amazing!
Grease plays at the Dominion Theatre until October 29th. Tickets available here
Photos by Manuel Harlan