Grease – The Arena Experience (Harvest Rain Theatre Company)
Brisbane Convention Centre
April 7 – 9
Thanks to the 1978 cult classic movie, “Grease” is a show with which audiences have an intimately familiar relationship. So staging a musical version for Australian audiences is a pretty safe bet. Even so, in its Arena Experience, Harvest Rain Theatre Company does not rest on its laurels, combining nostalgia and freshness to show how Grease is still the word.
For those few who don’t know how the story goes, usually cool-cat Danny (Drew Weston) and goody-goody Sandy (Meghan O’Shea) enjoy a whirlwind summer holiday romance, expecting to never see each other again…. until they both start their Senior year at Rydell High, a school comprised of cliques like the T-Birds and Pink Ladies.
As a musical, it is a challenge to stage, especially in an expansive arena; musical numbers emerge from character dreams and desires so the between-song scenes are needed to advance the narrative. With limited props and backdrops (although the size of the arena stage does allow for appearance of Kenickie’s restored ‘Greased Lightning’ car), it becomes the job of costumes and lighting to set the scenes of 1950s American in all its rock and roll glory. And in this regard the production delivers, with colour and movement aplenty thanks to its youth ensemble cast of over 800 performers, which makes numbers likes like ‘Greased Lightning’ (minus the usual peppering of profanities) a spectacular salute to the hot rod’s promised joy.
‘Shaking at the Highschool Hop’, too, is an irresistible Act Two opener, as the hundreds of teenagers fill a space bigger than a school gymnasium. Indeed, it is scenes such as this and ‘Born to Hand Jive’ that showcase the production’s tight choreography as the mass ensemble join in the complicated pattern of hand moves and claps with impressive synchronicity.
Certainly, the most durable and iconic part of “Grease” is the music and its appeal in this regard is obvious from the outset with some audience members singling along to its famous soundtrack from start to finish. After a shaky vocal start with ‘Grease is the Word’, ‘Summer Loving’ soars thanks to O’Shea and Weston’s vibrant vocals. The two are both versatile vocalists and O’Shea’s delivery of ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ is appropriately angelic. Also of strong voice is Ruby Clark as the feisty Pink Ladies leader, bad-girl (Betty) Rizzo, especially in her mockery of the wholesome Sandy in ‘Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee’.
The most memorable musical numbers, vocally speaking, are of the jukebox musical type that were absent from the film version, such as ‘Those Magic Changes’, ‘Mooning’ and when at Marty’s (Emily Monsma) pyjama party, she tells of a long-distance courtship with a Marine in ‘Freddy My Love’. But it is Dami Im’s ‘Beauty School Dropout’ that is the absolute highlight. In her first musical theatre role, as Teen Angel, Im owns the stage as she delivers the advice to Frenchy about her next move in life, mesmerising the audience in a way that exemplifies all that there is to love about musical theatre. In terms of individual performances, however, apart from Weston’s Danny swagger and O’Shea’s girl-next-doorishness as Sandy, it is difficult to comment beyond vocals as the arena setting (literally) distances the audience from any character connections.
Messing with a musical theatre classic is a brave move and mostly in this instance, the dialogue tweaks and song reordering, especially adding the movie’s ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ (Olivia Newton-John’s contractually-entitled vocal solo) to the musical set-list and moving it from Sandy’s slumber party over her feelings towards Danny, despite his earlier behaviour, to when she is separated from him at the High School dance, works particularly well from a narrative perspective.
Harvest Rain’s “Grease” is a celebration of many of both the movie and musical’s iconic movements, recreated and wrapped in neon to both celebrate and invigorate them in a fresh and exciting way. Its celebration of the sprint of the show is not only nostalgic, but entertaining, ensuring an infectiously good time on stage and in the stalls alike.
Photos c/o – Nick Morrissey