When the late, great Olivia Newton-John twirled into Rydell High, all pastels and Mary Janes as Aussie expat Sandy, the 1978 hit movie Grease was already a time capsule. Full of “summer loving” for leather-jacketed bad boy Danny, the working class teenage ‘greaser’ portrayed by a slick-quiffed and sizzlin’ John Travolta, Sandy was an avatar of another generation. The movie and the 1971 musical it’s based on harked back to ‘50s rock and roll culture through a nostalgic bubble gum hue, longing for a time the teens who flocked to cinemas to see it had never known.
Of course, it was a mammoth and enduring hit, with showcase bangers ‘You’re The One That I Want’, ‘Summer Nights’ and ‘Greased Lightnin’’ as popular on disco dancefloors now as they were way back then. Which is why, flash forward more than 45 years later, and the original stage show – with a book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey – is enjoying its umpteenth revival at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. But is it still the one that we want?
The answer is undoubtedly yes for the jubilant, seat-dancing crowd on opening night. But for this reviewer, at least, there are a few caveats to what remains a fun night out, but one that lacks a little “wop boma loo mop a wop bam boom”.
Annelise Hall and Joseph Spanti are certainly likeable, if not incendiary, opposite one another as the star-crossed summer lovers who can’t quite seem to get their act together, largely down to Danny being too cool for a school sweetheart. But then, Sandy and Danny never were the story’s most interesting characters.
That honour goes, first and foremost, to the snarlingly cool, perma-smoking Rizzo, Sandy’s punch-drunk frenemy from the Pink Ladies brigade. Played with perfection by Mackenzie Dunn, Rizzo's sniping and preening are electrified by the friction between her and Danny’s possibly maybe gal Sandy, whom she sees as too annoyingly good to be true. Dunn sinks her nails in deep. Keanu Gonzalez, who looks remarkably closer to Travolta than Spanti, is also spot on as Danny’s fellow T-Bird gang member, Kenickie, the soon-to-be-owner of the infamous Greased Lightnin’ wheels. It’s this pair who steal the limelight.
While the rest of the gang do fine, no one really stands out on the student front. It is deeply disappointing, in 2024, how little diversity there is among this cohort’s casting, particularly as no American high school would ever be this white. Something the stage show could and absolutely should have improved on the movie.
Patti Newton, whose late husband Bert appeared in a previous production of Grease, has a great deal of fun in the smaller role of rulebook-clutching teacher Mrs Lynch, as does the magnificent Marcia Hines, eating up her camp cameo as the glittering winged Teen Angel. Jay Laga'aia also exudes charisma as radio host Vic Fontaine, a sort of narrator role, not that there's all that much to explain.
A little oomph is lost by airbrushing out the T-Bird’s rival gang, the Scorpions, barring the school dance showdown that’s made a little spicier by Cristina d’Agostino’s Cha Cha. But it’s the underwhelming presentation that really lets the side down. There’s only so much you can wring from spinning the bleachers of James Browne’s pretty basic set design, which more often than not gets in the way of the ensemble’s smooth, hand-jiving moves corralled with abundant pep by choreographer Eric Giancola. And while Browne’s costumes get the job done, they’re not as poppin’ as they could be. Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting design does a lot of the heavy lifting.
There’s also no getting around the inherent sexism of a story that requires Sandy to completely transform into a ‘bad girl’ to win her man, with the mirror image of Danny becoming a good track star boy to meet her in the middle still too vague to make it to the finishing line. It is what it is. But leaving in a thuddingly homophobic ‘joke’ that has no bearing on the plot whatsoever feels like an overt misstep easily solved with a quick snip.
As directed by Luke Joslin, Grease snaps tighter in the second act, by which point the joyous jukebox blast of nostalgia-spinning tunes ensures that long-term fans will be hopelessly devoted whether this staging offers anything particularly new or not.