“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”.
“an energetic and spectacular tribute to one of the most influential artists who has ever lived”
Thriller Live first opened at the Lyric Theatre in London in 2009 and since then has had over 4,000 performances and is soon to be the 11th longest running musical in the West End. Celebrating the life and legacy of Michael Jackson, Thriller Live, produced by Paul Walden and Derek Nicol, takes its audience on a journey through the King of Pop’s greatest hits from his early life in the Jackson 5 to his dizzying success with the albums Bad and Thriller.
The show has little plot other than a vague chronology of Jackson’s life and musical career. The incredibly cute Ishaan Raithatha plays a young Michael Jackson and leads on ABC and I Want You Back while Florivaldo Mossi does an excellent job of playing the King of Pop at the height of his career. With Mossi’s effortless flair, it’s easy to forget that you are not actually watching MJ himself. In Billie Jean, Mossi takes to the stage alone and dominates the space with his incredible imitation of Jackson’s dancing. The choreography (Gary Lloyd) is incredible throughout the show and particularly notable during Dangerous, Dirty Diana and Smooth Criminal.
For a special two-week run this Christmas, singer Peter Andre also joins the cast. There is great excitement for Andre amongst the crowd and any appearance of his on-stage garners whoops and cheers. Andre did well to keep up with the King of Pop’s signature moves, but his voice is unfortunately not nearly as strong as the other singers. The strongest vocalist is Vivienne Ekwulugo who leads a beautiful rendition of Who’s Loving You.
Haydon Eshun and John Moabi do well to host the show though there is no one person who is particularly good at getting the audience going. Any enthusiasm from the crowd is the result of favourite songs rather than engaging audience participation. During Shake Your Body, the cast attempt to start a sing along but it is far too early in the show for the audience to really be warmed up enough. By the finale, however, the audience are far more receptive.
The set (Johnathan Park) consists of several screens one of which opens at the back of the stage to create an entrance and from behind which the band plays. Two tall light-up staircases sit either side and lead up to a walkway where the cast dance and in Smooth Criminal show off Jackson’s famous anti-gravity lean. There is another large screen that hangs above the stage and displays different images depending on the song. Bursts of light and flashing effects (Nigel Catmur) are also frequently used to enhance crescendo moments.
There are few props, but these are barely necessary as the dancing and lights are engaging enough. During Smooth Criminal and Dirty Diana in the second half, two sofas are wheeled around to add variety to the dancing. There is also some flag waving at the end of Can You Feel It and fake drums to match the banging in They Don’t Care About Us. The costumes (Rob Jones and Catherine Teatum) are suitably Jackson-esque with lots of sparkles and iconic outfits such as the Smooth Criminal white suit and the red Thriller jacket.
Michael Jackson fan or not, it is hard to not find yourself bopping along in your seat or, when encouraged, to stand to your feet and sing along. Though some more information on Jackson’s life would have been appreciated, Thriller Live is an energetic and spectacular tribute to one of the most influential artists who has ever lived.