The long hot summer we are currently experiencing is the perfect setting for the perennial American favourite Grease, currently on stage at Norwich Theatre Royal presented by their large and talented Youth Company. Few will be unfamiliar with the film version starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta made in 1978, but the musical itself was first performed on stage in 1971. The story is set in 1958 and is a frank exploration of the turmoil and torpor of teenage loving. In particular it explores the tension between allowing emotions to develop and the powerful teen peer pressure institutionalised in the American way of school life.
Stage renditions of teenagers can sometimes be excruciating but Grease sidesteps this worry by allowing the songs to dominate, giving us a cascade of tunes that are well known the world over. The music is by Michael Gibson, who was influenced by leading musical composers Kander and Ebb, and gives us a blend of uptempo dance numbers with some wistful solo reflections. This means that they work on a stage, immediately engaging us all.
To me there is always something rather curious about a group of today’s teenagers acting out the drama of their grandparent’s generation but as ever with young performers they put such energy and enthusiasm into it that it is hard not to share their joy. Perhaps the basic themes are perennial – every young person sooner or later will find their first love, and also probably be heartbroken when it goes awry. This show captures that perfectly, which is why forty years on it still fills the theatres.
The principal cast members do a fine job of bringing the 1958 teens alive with distinctive character and enthusiasm. Fresh from a summer romance Sandy Dumbrowski (Heather Kelly) switches schools to Rydell High, only to learn swiftly that her holiday romance Danny Zuko (Steven Logsdon) is also there but posing in his peer group tough guy persona as one of the T-Bird gang. Each of them has to follow the dictates of their equally tentative peer group members so refreshing the romance is not straightforward. That’s the plot essentially – the rest is just singing and dancing about it a lot. Heather Kelly has a fine singing voice and gives the role of Sandy more depth than you might expect from the film version and manages the transition from shy schoolgirl to sexy vamp rather well. Her enthusiastic but gauche partner Danny is played just right by Steven Logsdon who shows how Danny is escaping from his macho gang mates to discover his gentler side – a bit too slowly, as is the way with teenage lads.
The girls with Sandy and the boys with Danny are great fun and each are allowed to develop their distinctive personalities. I particularly enjoyed Frenchy (Lily Hazell) and Rizzo (Cathy Russell) from the girls, and Kenickie (Benjamin Hill Brookes) and Eugene (Aaron Stokes) from the boys but all were lively and competent performance from this 13-19 year old cast.
This show reflects the simple binary of perceived life in the 1950s and I can’t help thinking how good a more modern take on the troubles of teenage life could be, presented with the same zeal as this show is.
This show has a total cast of about 200 youngsters on various nights, so being on stage at all is a triumph of logistical management. It all works well, although the set changes are sometimes a bit slow and parking all those future stars in the wings must take a bit of discipline!
The show brought in a much younger audience than some shows do and was received with huge enthusiasm by those seated around me, who were dancing in their seats and clapping along to the songs, sometimes even in time with the rather good band in the orchestra pit. The band from CNS School kept the show moving along nicely, although where I sat in the circle they at times rather overwhelmed the stage singers.
Director Jo Reil has built on the sound foundation of the Theatre Royal Youth Company to give us a show full of life and energy that gives young performers a voice in show that is all about their age group. It works well, and I defy anyone not to leave the theatre grinning from ear to ear after this joyful and perfectly executed performance from vibrant company of young stars. This may be a Youth Company but the skills and discipline of the production are worthy of their place on Norwich’s biggest stage.
© Julian Swainson 2018
Grease is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday 28th July
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000