Review: Grease at New Theatre Oxford
"Watching ‘Grease Lightning’ you feel like you’re at a rock show; there’s big notes, big lights, big moves"
Decades before one of the most quotable films I know, Mean Girls, came out, another show demonstrated the brutality, bitchiness and immaturity of teenaged cliques – Grease, back on tour and at Oxford's New Theatre until Saturday 1st April.
“Goody-goody” Sandy Dumbrowski (Danielle Hope) is new at Rydell High School, and fresh from having met and fallen for the popular T-Bird Danny Zuko (Tom Parker) during the summer. She’s unaware, however, that he is also a pupil at Rydell.
The Pink Ladies she ends up tagging along with force the pair together again; not wishing to mar his reputation in front of other T-Birds Kenickie, Doody, Roger, and Sonny, Zuko brushes her off as some “family friend” and she’s humiliated. What follows is the story of each doing what they can to win the other back, interspersed with a butchered ear piercing, a possible pregnancy, and a car called Greased Lightning.
The New Theatre was crowded, a feat quite possibly helped by the casting of The Wanted’s Tom Parker. He’d told me previously that he has developed as a dancer, and he holds his own with the others on stage in this case. He commits to the role, supplies funny bits, and nails the Danny Zuko walk. For me his strongest singing spell takes place during ‘Greased Lightning’, where he provides vocal fillers in the first verse sang by Tom Senior in the role of Kenickie. The notes sit nicely in his register, creating a sound superior to that which he produces in other songs which are a bit too low for him it seems.
The most inspired piece of casting is Ryan Heenan as Doody. Not only has he got a great voice, but he excellently conveys the character as a confused young boy desperately wanting to fit in with a gang, adding a dimension to the T-Birds I’ve not detected before.
I’d have preferred a more electrifying beginning to the production. It could have done without the voiceover of radio DJ Vince Fontaine (Darren Day), and the duet sang by Parker and Hope from elevated platforms either side of the stage, opening instead with the bold, alluring and energetic ‘Grease is the Word’. Having said this, perhaps the low-key start to the show is what makes that song all the more exhilarating. In hindsight I appreciate the contrast, but at the time didn’t have the patience for it.
Other contrasts throughout the show I can’t appreciate, even in retrospect. Watching ‘Grease Lightning’ you feel like you’re at a rock show; there’s big notes, big lights, big moves: it’s a real pulsating spectacle that you can’t take your eyes off. ‘We Go Together’ is an effective blend of happiness and well-coordinated, in-sync dance moves – another treat for the eyes. Plus I applaud Grease’s use of ‘Those Magic Changes’ because of how unapologetically it exists within the show, it doesn’t further the story, it’s there because they want it there, and there is no attempt to disguise this; here it is mixed with a humerous, vivaciously camp dance routine involving semi-nude men in gym showers singing into back scrubbers.
But the moments listed above are punctuated by scenes that come across quite flat, during which certain solo numbers and duets aren’t quite as alive as they could be. The high level of energy the Grease team can evidently accomplish is not always present, but the show is worth seeing for those times when they do achieve it.
Images © Paul Coltas
Related Articles: An interview with Tom Parker