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The word on Grease is that it entertains... just!

Review by David Munro

Until Chorus Line came along Grease was the longest-running musical on Broadway.

Originally opening Off Broadway, in February 1972, it moved into Broadway, where it remained until April 1980, clocking up 3,338 performances along the way.

Its initial London run was not so successful, opening in June 1973, at the New London Theatre, which itself had only just been opened, it failed to achieve the 250 performances necessary to qualify it for a long run.

This, despite the fact that Danny was played by a young Richard Gere, singing and dancing almost 30 years before he dusted off his dancing shoes for the film of Chicago.

It was not until the release of the film, in 1978, that Grease made an impact on the Great British public, following which it was revived, in 1979, with a cast, which included Su Pollard and Tracey Ullman, and then again, in 1993, by which time the score was updated by inclusion of songs specially written for the film.

By now, the show had come a long way from the original concept of a nostalgic, over-the-shoulder look at the Fifties and was developing into a thinly-disguised rock concert.

At the time of its first production, it was intended as a gentle satire on the dress, mores and morals of a previous generation, making fun of a way of life which was already out- moded - a sort of American Boy Friend - the slang was as dated as the hairstyles, but its appeal was its charm and wry acceptance of the idiocy of an era.

The authors, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, never managed to recapture that success, and, ironically, the songs which became most popular, and which now personify Grease to the general public, were by other hands.

The current tour version, which is based on the recent London production, jettisons charm for brashness.

The show is no longer a visit to the never-never-land of the Fifties, but is a brassy paean to Rock and Roll. Gone is the simple little show, and in its place, is a high-tech musical production with elaborate chorus numbers and orchestrations.

The plot - whenever it gets a chance to emerge - revolves around Danny (Ben Richards), a member of the Burger Palace Boys, a greaser gang at Rydell High School - and in this context, a greaser is not a mechanic, but a boy who wears his hair greased back in what was then known as a D.A. hairstyle, and Sandy (Suzanne Carley), an innocent ingénue newly arrived at the school.

Having met on the beach during the Summer, they fall in love immediately but the affair never gets off the ground until Sandy learns there is little virtue in virtue and becomes one of the Pink Ladies gang, and swaps her cotton dresses for skin tight lycra.

The production, however, gives neither of them any real chance to display their talents, which, in the case of Miss Carley, is perhaps just as well.

Ben Richards, however, has a strong personality and appears to be an excellent dancer, and needs a show like, for example, Saturday Night Fever - in which he has appeared - to showcase him.

Miss Carley sings her solos as directed, but otherwise walks through her role without much conviction.

As always in shows of this nature, the more rewarding part is the other woman, Betty Rizzo, played here by Mary Doherty, who gets all the best lines and, arguably, the best two numbers - although in this revised version, Sandy's repertoire is enhanced by the songs written for the film.

Miss Doherty, however, decides not to throw away her lines, but to discard them so they are completely lost on the audience. Similarly, the words of her numbers could do with a little more articulation and a little less smothering by the dissonance of her singing.

The rest of the supporting cast, however, show that there is still a lot of entertainment to be found in the ruins of the original show.

Robby Scotcher, Richard Hardwick, Brendan Coustley and Graham Tudor make the Burger Gang funny and believable. They all have solo spots, of which they make the most, and in the ensembles, they are outstanding.

The Pink Ladies are also well-served by Karen Holmes, Danielle Corlass and Sarah Lowries, displaying the fun that can be found in the endless quest for a boy.

The school nerd, Eugene (Jamie Tyler), the cheerleader, Patty (Becky Hanks), and the principal, Miss Lynch (Jane Quinn), all have their moments, which they seize with both hands and merited the applause they received.

As did Victoria Hinde, for her dancing, as Cha-Cha, and Jason Campbell, in the combined roles of Vince Fontaine and Teen Angel, the archetypal rock and roll singer of the period.

The energetic and seemingly endless gyratory choreography was what we have come to expect from Arlene Phillips, adequate but seldom inventive.

The direction was credited to David Gilmore, who proved, as his CV confirmed, he has a forte for staging rock concerts.

This is sad, as I have admired his work in the past, where he has shown that he can handle, sensitively, musicals like Radio Times, which, in many ways, resembled Grease in its original incarnation.

The stage was flanked by neon columns designed by Terry Parsons, which flashed intermittently, again emphasising the rock concert aspect of the show.

Any more intimate moments were handled by inserts wheeled off and on the stage, which otherwise was left bare for the big numbers.

The exception was an elaborate bleachers set, in the second act, which gave an inkling in both the setting and the staging of the scene; of what the show could have been, had it remained true to its original concept.

I cannot say I disliked the show, such as it was.

For what it turned out to be, there was still, with certain exceptions, a lot that was very good and professional and from the way the audience reacted, this was what they wanted.

It is just that when a show is torn from its roots and metamorphosed, I like to be warned, so that I can be prepared for what is on offer.

Last night was like going to Lohengrin and seeing Swan Lake, simply because a swan appears in the Wagner's original plot; fine, if you like Ballet, but not if you want a night at the Opera; but still enjoyable if, after the initial shock, it entertains.

Grease Original Book, Music and Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Additional songs by B. Gibb, J Farrar, L St Louis & S. Simon.
Director, David Gilmore; Set Design, Terry Parson; Costume Design, Andreane Nedfitou; Lighting, Mark Henderson; Sound, Bobby Aitken. Musical Staging and choreography, Arlene Phillips; Musical Director, Julian Reeve.
CAST: Ben Richards; Suzanne Carley; Robbie Scotcher; Mary Doherty; Richard Hardwick; Brendan Coustley; Graham Tudor; Karen Holmes; Danielle Corlass; Sarah Lowries; Jason Campbell; Jamie Tyler; Betty Hanks; Jane Quinn; Victoria Hinde; Philip Austin; Ryan Jenkins; Lee Marriner; Gary Thatcher; John Trakos; Richard Crocker; Stephanie Harrow; Leanne Harwood; Emily Holt; Leanne Pinder.
Produced by Paul Nicholas and David Ian. New Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon, London, SW19 1QG. Mon, April 5 - Sat, April 10, 2004. Mon - Thur eves - 7.30pm;
Fri - 5.30pm & 8.30pm; Sat - 5pm & 8.30pm.
Box Office 0870 060 1827.

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