Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, April 8
“Before Grease was the word, it was raw, raunchy and risqué,” writes director Jay James-Moody in the theatre program for The Original Grease.
As the title suggests, The Original Grease is at attempt to return the popular musical to the grittier, edgier show that it was when it premiered in 1971 in Chicago at the 300-seat Kingston Mines Theatre, a disused tram shed.
In fact, it’s not strictly that original 1971 production but a hybrid version, reconstructed by Jim Jacobs (who originally wrote Grease with Warren Casey) and director PJ Parapelli for the American Theatre Company, who staged it in Chicago in 2010. Warmly received, James-Moody chased the rights for years.
It’s very interesting to see where the show came from and how it has changed over the years, particularly in the wake of the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John when the sharper edges were knocked off it, the swearing toned down and the whole thing made more family-friendly. Those changes, along with the perky new songs that were added, made their way into subsequent stage productions and Grease evolved from something small and grungy to a more sanitised, bubblegum, crowd-pleasing entertainment.
However, historical interest aside, this production by indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic never really flies. In part that’s the production itself and in part it’s the inexperience of the youthful cast that James-Moody has gathered, not helped by the lack of punchy rock ‘n’ roll oomph to many of the songs.
The score assembled for The Original Grease predominantly features songs from the 1971 Chicago production, some of them little known, such as a comic number for Patty Simcox called Yeeughh! and Miss Lynch’s In My Day, both cut prior to the show going to Broadway in 1972.
There are also a few numbers that didn’t even make it to the 1971 Chicago debut and an underwhelming song for Danny called How Big I’m Gonna Be, written for the 2010 version from chords and lyrics that Jacobs and Casey sketched long ago.
The songs written for the film have all been removed. So, no Summer Nights, Sandy, Hopelessly Devoted or You’re the One That I Want. Nor will you hear the song Grease as you know it but a different one with the same title, while Kenickie sings Alone at the Drive In Movie rather than Danny.
It’s fascinating to hear the beginnings of Summer Nights in Foster Beach (the number it replaced) and likewise All Choked Up, which made way for You’re the One That I Want. But you can see why numbers were changed. There aren’t any lost musical gems here.
Drawing on Jacobs’ own experience, Grease was originally about teenagers from the tough, working class suburbs of Chicago. There are scenes showing them roaming the streets at night, trying to get a homeless man to buy them booze, with a police officer forever on their case (shades of West Side Story), while their conversations include more swearing, sexist and racist comments, and slang than in later versions of the show.
You certainly get more of a sense of teenagers from the rough side of town but essentially it’s the same story as the one we know. It’s more of an ensemble piece though. Sandy and Danny are less fore-grounded, even though their story still tops and tails the show, and there’s a lot more dialogue.
James-Moody has assembled a cast of young performers, not long out of their teens. Brendan Xavier who plays Danny Zuko is 18. Where most productions cast older, their youthfulness adds a level of authenticity. However, their inexperience as performers shows. They certainly perform with energy though it’s often unfocussed and lines are sometimes hard to hear, while more acting nuance is needed to carry the dialogue scenes.
As for the musical arrangements, there’s little raw 1950s rock ‘n’ roll edge to the songs and without that punch the show doesn’t lift with the musical numbers. Even Born to Hand Jive doesn’t really rock. And with the six-piece band conducted by Benjamin Kiehne sitting centre-stage, it seems a lost opportunity not to have them looking (and playing) like 1950s rockers.
James-Moody’s production is modestly staged on a minimal, gritty set (designed by Georgia Hopkins) with a metal platform and a few tyres, which works well enough. There are some lovely touches like the inventive way James-Moody has the boys create Greased Lightning with a few bits and bobs including a car fender and a steering wheel. But much of the staging feels messy, while a moment of nudity just feels awkward. Brendan Hay’s costuming is pretty spot-on and adds plenty of colour, even if some of the girl’s outfits feels a little risqué for the 50s.
Coral Mercer-Jones is a standout as Rizzo and her soulful rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do is a musical highlight. Matilda Moran is a hoot as a goofy Patty, Daniella Mirels is a vulnerable Frenchy, the beauty school dropout, and Stephanie Priest is sweetly funny as Jan – with a cute, touching scene between Jan and Jason Mobbs-Green as Roger (“Rump”) when they surprise themselves by hooking up.
The Original Grease is a great opportunity to get a sense of how Grease began and how it has changed over the years. It’s reasonably enjoyable but the production never really soars and as it ambles along it starts to feel long and increasingly flat. As a friend said: “it’s interesting historically but it’s not a version I’d want to see again.”
The Original Grease plays at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until May 7. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7940