Grease | Theatre Review

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

by Andrea Drobna

★ ★ ★

First seen on stage in 1971, Grease the musical features a group of teenagers tackling their last year of high school, battling with issues surrounding bullying, adolescence, and sexuality. Set in 1959, the musical portrays the teen culture of the time where boys rocked greased back hair and leather jackets, and girls sported candy-floss hair and frilly dresses. The Grease generation was also the first to be introduced to the rock n’ roll classics like Elvis Presley and started the wave of teen independence and rebellion towards authority most prominent in later generations. When first released, the play was loud and in-your-face, portraying who the teenagers of this generation were, and the struggles they faced in everyday life.

In Nikolai Foster’s 2019 rendition of the play, he chose to shy away from the cheery, bubblegum feel of the movie we all know and love, and turn back to the early 1970s script. While the movie takes place in sunny California and focuses on the love story of Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko, the original script draws from the directors’ own experiences growing up as working-class kids on the South Side of Chicago. Sandy Olsson is originally a working-class Sandy Dumbrowski, with the production exploring the grit and grind of Chicago summers. With much harsher themes and the cast looking ‘as if they came right off the street’, according to Machine Fox, one of the original producers who took the show to Broadway, most Broadway productions had to take a softer approach to make the characters more appealing to New York audiences, almost completely ditching the original script.

Despite prior renditions of the production proving to be successful with audiences, Nikolai brought a new element to the musical, introducing ‘new-old’ numbers that had previously been cut, and changing the scene back to Chicago. When asked in an interview if he felt like it was a risk to give a fresh spin on a show that has been so successful, he responded with ‘Of course, you’re aware this is an iconic title and you don’t want to mess it up, but there’s no point in getting anxious about comparisons with other versions because the tone and atmosphere of what we’re about is different’. As an avid lover of Grease and having seen the musical live three times myself before, I was excited to see what this production had in store.

The first act started off with the image of Sandy and Danny’s summer at the beach, projected on a screen brought down in front of the stage. The screen was mainly used throughout the musical during transitions, or to show scenes such as the characters driving, or going to the drive-in theater. This was a unique touch to the show that I hadn’t seen used in any other musical production, and it was an excellent way to convey scenes that the actors couldn’t portray on stage. The first song was then Grease is the word, introducing the students of Rydell High School. Right of the bat, the mood of the musical was very upbeat, and throughout the first few numbers, reminisced older Broadway productions of the show. Young and naïve newcomer Sandy Dubrowski was trying to fit in with the girls at Rydell and trying to understand why the guy she fell in love with over the summer was someone completely different than she had once though. What differed in this production, however, was the inclusion of numbers such as Freddy My Love and How Big I’m Gonna Be. These two introduced themes such as dating someone who has left for the army in Freddy My Love and depicting Danny’s struggle and frustration of coming from a working-class family in How Big I’m Gonna Be. Despite this number being left in, Danny’s struggle with his feelings aren’t further developed, as he always gives in to the peer pressure. His mixed feeling towards Sandy are never properly conveyed, and never seems to grow from his insecurities. Due to this, the inclusion of this number felt unnecessary. Another change that Nikolai introduced was Rizzo singing her most iconic number, Sandra Dee, at Frenchie’s going away party, rather than at the sleepover with all the girls. By making fun of Sandy in front of both groups, it triggers a different reaction from Sandy than in the movie and most past productions. Instead of Sandy being ashamed and running away from the group, she stands up to Rizzo and tries fight her, calling her out for her flaws. This scene left me confused about Sandy’s character, as previous scenes portrayed her as timid, and unwilling to give in to peer pressure. By the end of the first act, I was conflicted as to how the story would develop further, and how Sandy and Danny’s love story would play out.

The second act kicks off with the students getting ready for their senior prom, singing Grease while the boys style their hair and the girls put on their poufy dresses and makeup. Although this is one of the lesser known songs in the musical, it was one of my favorite performances, and really captured the teen culture of the 1950s. The second act then continues with the numbers at the school musical, hosted by local celebrity Vince Fontaine. Although his character is known to be both flirty and charming, I felt like the sexual jokes were taken a bit too far, with the scene of Fontaine feeling up the head teacher distasteful. The rest of the act features iconic numbers such as Hopelessly Devoted to You, sung by Sandy when she realizes how much Danny means to her, and There Are Worst Things I Could Do, as Rizzo embraces her sexual freedom and shows audiences that sex is nothing to be afraid of. The solo numbers in the musical were particularly incredible, with the actors conveying their pain and emotions beautifully.

The end of the show closed off with Danny sending a letter to Sandy, explaining that although they had had a good year, they were just too different to be together. Sandy then responds with a reprise of Sandra Dee, this time embracing Rizzo’s criticisms and taking it upon herself to transform her look for Danny. In the closing numbers You’re the One That I Want and We Go Together (reprise), Sandy reappears in tight clothing, smoking a cigarette, and her and Danny dance away in their leather jackets. What I felt like the production missed out on the most was the development of both Danny and Sandy, and as the two main characters of the show, I felt like they showed the least progression. Despite minor criticisms about his character, Danny stays the same, and it seems as if Sandy only changes to mold Danny’s fantasy, rather than embracing herself and growing more confident. Overall, I was disappointed by how their love story was portrayed.

With brilliant casting, phenomenal singing and dancing, and a refreshingly unique set, Grease had the potential to be a standout show. Although the show did a fantastic job of portraying the culture at the time, what it lacked in was character development, with some unnecessary numbers added in. How Sandy and Danny were portrayed did little to show their depth and conflicting emotions and had left me with conflicted feelings as I left the theatre.