“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”.
“At over two hours long, Luke Sheppard’s punchy direction never lets the show drag for a second”
The story behind the inception and eventual opening of “Rent” twenty-five years ago is almost worthy of a musical in itself. Waiting on tables in Manhattan ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ neighbourhood amid the homelessness, punks, addicts and drag queens, young composer Jonathan Larson sweated through the nights writing hundreds of songs, most of which wouldn’t make it to the final cut. When it finally reached its premiere, it attracted press attention on account of opening night falling exactly one hundred years after Puccini’s “La Bohème”, on which “Rent” is loosely based. Leaving the offices of The New York Times, Larson was upbeat, enjoying the dizziness of first night nerves. But that dizziness was concealing a misdiagnosed condition. Larson never made it to the theatre that evening.
Over quarter of a century later Larson’s legacy still continues to burst with energy each time it is revived on the stage. The Hope Mill Theatre’s production is no exception with its intimate and raw staging that is fresh and unique while still remaining faithful to the qualities that powered its original success on Broadway. It’s been a tough journey for the creative team. Scheduled to run this summer, lockdown pushed that back to October, only for it to close after five nights. But before the theatre went dark again it was captured on film by the innovative film company ‘The Umbrella Rooms’ and can now be seen online for a limited period.
The show’s raggle-taggle narrative centres on the tangle of mangled romantic friendships, telling the story of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and avoid eviction; particularly aspiring film maker, Mark, and his song-writer flatmate Roger, who is struggling to complete his ‘one great song’. Characterisation and plot may spend most of the time in the wings, but it is the music that grabs the spotlight, and the fiery dynamism that the cast bring onto the stage. During production, the cast all lived together in a (very noisy) twelve-bedroom house, and the chemistry, conviction and commitment that this would generate clearly shows. Nobody ever leaves the stage, and when not directly in the thick of it the cast watch from the shadows, still acting and reacting.
At over two hours long, Luke Sheppard’s punchy direction never lets the show drag for a second; turbo charged by Musical Director Chris Poon and his pumping five-piece rock band; and Tom Jackson Greaves’ sawtooth sharp choreography. There are a lot of numbers in this show and the cast are on a mission to get through them all. The breathlessness gives way to moments of humour, which in turn bleed into the sad songs, which is where the true emotional kick is felt. Dom Hartley-Harris, as the vagabond anarchist Tom Collins, cuts the atmosphere, and your heart, with a knife during the beautiful ‘I’ll Cover You’ at the funeral of his lover, Angel; powerfully played by the velvet-voiced Alex Thomas-Smith. Millie O’Connell is wonderfully eccentric as experimental performance artist, Maureen, who meets her match in lover Joanne (Jocasta Almgill) during the wonderful ‘Take Me or Leave Me’. Maiya Quansah-Breed’s Mimi commands the space with a sassy swagger weighed down by vulnerability and addiction, while Ahmed Hamad relishes his Ebenezer arc from bad guy to good as Benny. This is a show where the chorus is as crucial as the principals, and the vast array of talent is on clear display throughout. Featured ensemble Kayla Carter, for example, bursts through into the foreground with stunning, soaring vocals during ‘Seasons of Love’, the anthemic opener to the second act.
Central to the story are the joint protagonists, Mark and Roger. Blake Patrick Anderson’s performance illuminates the stage, extremely comfortable and assured with complete control of the soaring notes he aims so high for. Tom Francis is equally memorable as the more brooding songsmith, Roger, eventually finding his muse in Mimi. As he sings the achingly beautiful ‘Your Eyes’ we wonder if it is all too late.
“Rent” is the real Fairy Tale of New York. Exhilarating and poignant. Over a quarter of a century old but still as fresh and timely as ever. “How do you measure a year in a life?” asks the lyrics in the iconic ‘Seasons of Love’. A lot of us are asking how we can measure this past year of ours. Whatever conclusion we make, “Rent” is certainly a fine conclusion to the year in the run up to Christmas, with its relevant, relatable and wretched optimism.