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  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Capitol Theatre, Haymarket
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. Keanu Gonzalez, Joseph Spanti and T Birds in GREASE
    Photograph: Crossroads Live/Jeff Busby
  2. Marcia Hines on a purple-lit stage as Teen Angel in the musical 'Grease'
    Photograph: Supplied/Jeff Busby
  3. Grease the Musical - Joseph Spanti and Annelise Hall
    Photograph: Crossroads Live/Jeff Busby
  4. Grease the Musical - Jay Laga’aia and cast
    Photograph: Crossroads Live/Jeff Busby
  5. Grease the Musical - Patti Newton and cast
    Photograph: Crossroads Live/Jeff Busby
  6. Grease the Musical cast
    Photograph: Crossroads Live/Jeff Busby

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

This electrifying new production packs a nostalgic punch, but is this “modern” revival the one that we want?

Few musical references are as iconic as those from Grease. A simple "rama lama lama" or "a wop ba-ba lu-bop a wop bam boom!" may invoke joyful nostalgia, transporting you back to the first time you witnessed John Travolta's gyrating hips or “our” Olivia Newton-John's sweet Sandy smile. For me, it takes me back to my own high school musical experience. With my Pink Lady jacket and Pink Lady sunglasses, the Grease stage is where I first forged my life-long love affair with musical theatre and the passionate community that came with it. That is what musicals are forged on: passion – and this production of Grease: the Musical at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre has an infectious amount of it.

Before the 1978 film adaptation cemented Grease’s place in the global pop culture consciousness, this show set in the working-class youth subculture of 1950s Chicago was first staged in 1971. Like any rebellious teen tale, Grease tapped into the angst of young people of the time; it had a '50s style and a '70s attitude. Everyone wanted to be as cool as Kenickie (played here with delectable zeal by Keanu Gonzalez, who has also appeared in Hamilton and West Side Story), as bold as Rizzo (the eye-catching triple threat Mackenzie Dunn, as seen in Hairspray), or as sweet as the nervous Doody (Tom Davis).

There were definitely elements of my high school production that built my confidence, brought me out of my shell, and changed my perspective – but the plot wasn't one of them. The musical numbers were joyful and rebellious, but the love story of "bad boy" greaser Danny Zuko (Joseph Spanti) meets beachy blonde Aussie "good girl" Sandy Dumbrowski (Annelise Hall) was dated then, and is still dated now. So what could this all-Australian revival from producer John Frost (Crossroads Live) and director Luke Joslin offer to a new generation of Grease fans?

Spanti and Hall do a fine job as Danny and Sandy...but ultimately aren’t given the time and space to earn the audience’s sympathy.

A glance at the director’s note in the program identifies a production that aims to honour the original story while injecting a contemporary tone, one that would connect with "every facet of the audience". James Browne’s bold set and costume design, Dave Skelton’s spirited new orchestration, and Eric Giancola’s energetic choreography aptly harness the power of nostalgia, succeeding in adding a contemporary flair to the well-known musical. However, the production shies away from any meaningful changes that would anchor it to a contemporary ideology.

A genuine attempt at modernising the famed musical starts with the show's gender politics, and ends with its poor handling of sexual assault. It is not uncommon for productions of Grease to make amendments in order to move with the times. Most recently, Grease: Live! made a considered effort to update some of the show's problematic elements, including lyric changes and a rewrite of the cringey fat jokes that haunt the character Jan (played with zeal in this production by Caitlin Spears) throughout the show.

However, this revival has been quite selective in the changes it has chosen to implement, and it’s unclear why, particularly as it's listed as suitable for ages seven and up. While the production is happy to censor Marty (the stunningly sassy Brianna Bishop) in ‘Freddy My Love’ by swapping the line "wearing my lacy lingerie" for "carrying my wedding bouquet," sexual references in ‘Grease Lightning’ such as "the chicks'll cream" and "she's a real pussy wagon" remain. The fat jokes are abundant, and there is also a scene in which Miss Lynch (Patti Newton) dryly tells the students that "couples must be boy and girl", and I doubt that sat comfortably with our queer friends in the audience.

The selective changes are exacerbated by the pace of the production. Scenes seem condensed, transitions using the revolve are awkward and poorly hidden, and there is an unprovoked, frenetic energy that seems to favour the flashy, crowd-pleasing dance numbers over the character development required to really sell this truncated story.

This mismanaged pacing primarily underserves the two leads. Spanti and Hall do a fine job as Danny and Sandy, delivering skillful vocals. But ultimately, the pair aren’t given the time and space to earn the audience’s sympathy. The scene at the high school dance is where the chaos is at its worst, but where it is most problematic is when Sandy resolves to transform into the red-lipped, leather-clad girl of Danny’s dreams – directly following their ill-fated date at the drive-in, where she storms off after Danny won’t take no for an answer. A kindling of friendship with Rizzo and a bottle of wine is apparently all Sandy needs to forget the trauma of Danny’s predatory persistence. Is this the modern-day woman we are set to admire? Perhaps the intention is to show Sandy stepping into her own power, but the audience never sees it. There is even an awkwardness and discomfort in Hall’s transformed Sandy; she performs as someone playing a part rather than writing her own narrative.

There are a few numbers that manage to cut through the noise, namely those that employ Eric Giancola’s bubbling choreography. The iconic ‘Grease Lightning’ gets the extravagant, macho treatment it deserves, and Keanu Gonzalez is the perfect live-wire act to lead it. Armed with an abundance of charisma and a mesmerising command of the choreography, Gonzalez is a captivating Kenickie. His chemistry with Mackenzie Dunn’s Rizzo is tantalising, and when thrown into dance breaks (of which they are often the only principal cast members), the pair displays a mastery of skill that is an absolute joy to watch. Dunn’s rendition of ‘There are Worse Things I Could Do’ is heart-wrenching, powerful, and entrancing – a much-needed moment of stillness in the second act. Caitlin Spears’ Jan, Andy Seymour’s Roger (aka Rump), and Tom Davis’ Doody are equally memorable in ‘Mooning’ and ‘Those Magic Changes’, bringing a sweetness to the vulgarity that is otherwise an aggressive assault of the senses.

The celebrated Marcia Hines infuses the historically male Teen Angel character with her own brand of diva gospel, but struggles in places with the lower register required of the original key. (She shares the role with Paulini for the production’s Sydney run.) Jay Laga’aia is a suitable Vince Fontaine, but the predatory aspects of the character are uncomfortably evident and problematic. It’s great to see actors of colour given the opportunity for a featured role, but the lack of diversity in the main ensemble doesn’t help this production’s pitch as a contemporary revival.

Those who lived with the musical through their younger years will find this version satisfyingly nostalgic. The production design succeeds in injecting a contemporary aesthetic into 1950s Americana, effectively using video projections to set a vintage cinema vibe in the theatre and to enhance the large, monochromatic set pieces. Big neon signs, and a central bandstand take us from the bleachers to the diner, to Rizzo’s bedroom, and Kenickie’s garage. Retro hourglass silhouettes and vibrant colour palettes feature heavily, and the musical numbers possess sufficient extravagance to entertain and delight. If you’re looking for anything more than a trip down memory lane, however, you won't find it here. 

Grease is playing in Sydney until June 1, 2024. Tickets are on sale now at

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Event website:
Capitol Theatre
13 Campbell St
Nearby stations: Central
From $69.90+bf
Opening hours:
Show times vary, check website

Dates and times

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