“if the onstage passion isn’t quite ‘electrifying’, the overall presentation is.”
Picture the scene in a cold, forbidding producers’ office. You’re pitching a musical. “What’s the plot?” they ask. Well; it’s boy meets girl, boy and girl indulge in a bit of ‘summer loving’ on holiday, boy spurns girl in the face of peer pressure back at school. Girl sees him for the shallow guy he is, so loses interest anyway. For some inexplicable reason she then decides that she wants him after all (teenagers, eh?). So, she changes her image, trashes what’s left of her endearing and intelligent personality, and dresses provocatively to entice this somewhat dumb and superficial guy. And – Hey Presto! They go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.
If you haven’t already been shown the door, you might just get to throw in that you think a two-thousand-seater West End theatre is the perfect venue. Preposterous. So maybe you should start the pitch with the title. When “Grease” was released for the cinema in 1978 it became the highest grossing musical film ever at the time. “Grease” was, and still is, the word, as the title song informs us. The New York Times called it “terrific fun”. Four and a half decades later that description still applies.
The current revival at London’s Dominion Theatre harks back more to the original musical which preceded the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John blockbuster, and which ran on Broadway for eight years until 1980. It’s London debut starred Richard Gere. But the familiarity is still there, and everything we simultaneously love and lambast is bursting at the seams in Nikolai Foster’s sumptuous production. There is a glorious mix of silliness and surreality, bubble-gum and bravado. No matter that the storyline is imperceptible to the point that the opening bars heralding each song are a welcome respite from the banality of the dialogue.
It is within the musical numbers that the heart of the show beats fiercely. There are a couple of additions to the set list, and a couple restored from the original, though these feel inconsequential when up against the wealth of crowd pleasers. Foster bravely doesn’t always play to the crowd, however, but instead injects a freshness that puts a new slant on some of Jim Jacobs’ and Warren Casey’s compositions. Highlights include Jocasta Almgill’s biting rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” or Olivia Moore’s poignant ”Hopelessly Devoted to You” during which she decides she no longer belongs on the side-lines.
Moore’s Sandy does flirt with feistiness, but the character cannot escape the constraints of the script. Even in the seventies one must have wondered why she submits to such gender stereotypical peer pressure; and the question certainly looms larger today. In fact, there are so many wrong messages bouncing off the walls of the auditorium. For the most part they are drowned out by the infectious rhythms of the music and the gusto of the performances, driven by the sheer power of Arlene Phillips’ choreography.
There is little to be gained from looking for nuance or, indeed, emotional punch. We don’t feel the ‘multiplying chills’ about which Dan Partridge, as Danny Zuko, faultlessly sings. But if the onstage passion isn’t quite ‘electrifying’, the overall presentation is. As the closing number suggests: “that’s the way it should be”. Or rather “shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom”.
Based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel of the same name, it is difficult to watch the musical adaptation without the added poignancy wrought from the knowledge that Vizzini took his own life at the age of thirty-two. He was aware that the musical was being produced – indeed even excited at the prospect. Writer Joe Tracz and composer and lyricist, Joe Iconis, had just finished the first draft when they learned about the author’s death. Sadly, he hadn’t yet heard any of the music, much of which represents Vizzini’s personal struggles.
It’s hard to know how much of the innate sorrow washes over the audience’s head. “Be More Chill” is unquestionably aimed at the younger demographic, and one hopes that it speaks to them more directly than the whoops and cheers that accompany the action suggests. There is a superficiality that belies the subtext and, whilst you cannot ignore the sheer entertainment value of the production, it would be a shame to belittle the significance. As a (slightly) older member of the audience I try to put myself in a younger pair of shoes. Yes, I can argue that there’s nothing ground breakingly new here, but the freshness of Iconis’ music and lyrics, with Tracz’s book pull you in to the story; a pull made more forceful by the strength of the performances.
Stephen Brackett’s production focuses on two high school characters doing their best to try to fit in: Jeremy; who is on a quest to find acceptance, initially with a self-absorbed disregard of anything or anybody else (cue the scope for redemption), and Michael who is more accepting of his oddball status. Jeremy is persuaded to try a new pill called SQUIP (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor) which imports a supercomputer into the brain and instructs him how to achieve the self-confidence he needs. It is a short cut to the popularity he dreams of but, being a heavy-handed metaphor, comes with the predictable downfalls. Michael is sceptical. What follows is a weird and sometimes wonderful storyline that is a mixture of high school musical and sci-fi fantasy.
Scott Folan’s Jeremy is a perfect mix of charm and angst, susceptibility and awareness. The standout is Blake Patrick Anderson as Michael. The audience cannot fail to be gripped by his show stealing performance, particularly during the most recognisable number, ‘Michael in the Bathroom’. Yet each cast member shines in their own way. Stewart Clarke as the personification of ‘Squip’: an intended pastiche and homage to Keanu Reeves in ‘The Matrix’. Miracle Chance illuminates the stage as love interest, Christine, while Christopher Fry delights as Jeremy’s father – trouser-less but nevertheless still ‘wearing the pants’.
The characters are brought further to life by Alex Basco Koch’s video projections which hypnotically convey the altered states of their minds. There are moments when the narrative steers a bit too close to confusion, but the actors pull it back and through song refocus on the heart of the matter. It’s a show of extremes; of suffering and joy, the agony and ecstasy. It’s initial run Off-Broadway failed to ignite its audience, and it simmered silently for a couple of years. Through word of mouth and YouTube clips the soundtrack eventually hit the charts and a cult phenomenon was born. Paradoxically you can understand both receptions. It is an undeniably addictive show, although I can see why some might want to resist it. But if you can cast aside reservations and learn to ‘be more chill’ it is well worth the ‘trip’.