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Review: Grease: The Musical at the Capitol Theatre

Reviewed by Priscilla Issa

Grease. The word evokes a rush of nostalgia. From the hand jiving in “Born to hand jive” to the box-stepping in “You’re the one that I want”, the musical is a journey back in time to the original 1971 stage production and the even more popular 1978 film adaptation. The plot is situated in 1958-1959 Chicago and tells the story of Rydell High students navigating the teenage struggle to forge an individual identity against the need to fit in. Sandy Dumbrowski (played by Annelise Hall), the recent arrival from Australia, is the archetypal good Christian girl. Despite her innocent, doll-like charm, Sandy finds herself in a predicament when she discovers that her summer romance was with none other than Rydell's charismatic heartthrob, Danny Zuko (portrayed by Joseph Spanti). Sandy is caught between the world of the cool kids and geeks as she attempts to navigate her way through the complexities of high school.

Many of the elements of this Crossroads Live production perfectly capture the 1950s. The production design integrates a cartoon moon, a vivid disco ball, radio broadcasts, and vintage television advertisements featuring exaggerated rockabilly and greaser hairstyles. James Browne’s set involves two pieces that are versatile and moveable that help transform the stage into bleachers, a bedroom, a drive-in, and school hall. The Grease Lightnin’ scene and Frenchy’s encounter with Teen Angel, are two vibrant dream sequences that are perfectly illuminated by Trudy Dalgleish's lighting design and evoke a 1950s garage shop and beauty school. The choreography incorporates authentic '50s dance moves…with a sprinkling of modern Fortnite references for a little modern fun. Beloved Australian performer Marcia Hines portrays Teen Angel with 1950s soul and vigor, and Patti Newton’s performance as Miss Lynch and Jay Laga'aia’s portrayal as Vince Fontaine, capture the 1950s problematic teacher and creepy radio announcer. Keanu Gonzalez was outstanding in his electrifying and charismatic performance as Kenickie. However, the undisputed star of the night was triple-threat Mackenzie Dunn in her portrayal of troubled teen, Rizzo. Her rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was honest, captivating and vocally sound. Each note belted exuded the gravity and heart-ache of a 1950s teen struggling with her image and identity. 

Grease holds a cherished spot in the hearts of Australians, particularly due to Olivia Newton-John's endearing portrayal of Sandy in the 1978 film, contrasting with John Travolta's charismatic rendition of the too-cool-for-school Danny. While initially embraced as a post-WWII rebellion narrative, the underlying themes now appear outdated to 2024 audiences. This includes issues such as gang violence, casual sexism, overt homophobia, sexual harassment, and discrimination. As an audience member, I had hoped director Luke Joslin would confront these themes head-on. However, it seemed that instead of addressing these contentious points, the production favoured a more superficial approach, focusing on upbeat “shooby doo-wop she-bop” sing-alongs rather than engaging with the complexities of the script.

It was unclear whether Hall intended to portray the classic Newton-John 'good girl image' or whether she opted for a more rebellious Sandy persona. This ambiguity rendered the final scene, where Sandy undergoes a transformation into the sexy, leather-clad version of Danny's ideal, somewhat unconvincing. Similarly,  Spanti’s portrayal as Danny, the local lothario, was subdued, perhaps the result of direction to convey Danny as impressionable and a product of peer influence, rather than a teenage boy with teenage boy fantasies. Unfortunately, the outcome was two lead performers who appeared uncertain in their portrayal of these iconic characters, grappling with defining their characters' identities decisively and struggling to convey the required chemistry. Furthermore, the supporting roles of Jan (Caitlin Spears), Doody (Tom Davis), Eugene (Gareth Isaac) and Patty (Lucy Fraser) come across more as caricatures than fully developed characters, resulting in performances that feel somewhat contrived.

In summary, this revival offers an evening of nostalgic toe-tapping, sing-along entertainment. Grease is playing for a limited season at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. 

Image Supplied


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