This seems to be the summer of classic musicals reimagined, moody Oklahoma! to the Young Vic for a revamp Revenge of a Blonde at Regent’s Park Open Air. In this vein, Nikolai Foster prepares his “grainy” Fat, who started Leicester Curve, have toured the UK and now play in the West End. But is it the one the audience wants?
Yes and no. Foster returned to the original musical version by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, rather than the nostalgic ’50s film by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. It’s definitely rawer: working-class, disaffected, lust-crazed kids standing up against authority, on the mean streets of Chicago instead of sunny California. There are songs you won’t recognize in the film, like an expressive rock solo for Dan Partridge’s restless Danny Zuko, “How Big I’m Gonna Be.”
But you realize the wisdom of film adaptation in narrative terms. The Danny/Sandy romance doesn’t really feature here, which means big numbers like “Hopelessly Devoted to You” — while well sung by Olivia Moore — come out of nowhere. Sandy’s climactic transformation into a sex kitten is particularly inexplicable, as she has vigorously defended her (admittedly goody-two-shoes) life choices in earlier scenes.
Curiously, their dynamic is also doubled by Danny’s push-pull relationship with perky cheerleader Patty Simcox, who also challenges him to do more with his life than just hang out with his gang, the Burger Palace Boys. She lingers as another romantic prospect, thanks to the busy scenes between Partridge and the vivacious Jessica Croll. Still, Patty has more growth than Danny – who basically got a free pass for his fumbling, lying, and hesitating.
But if that Fat loses the thread of its boy-meets-girl plot, it is much more successful as a hymn to teenage friendships. From passionate back and forths from the indelible “Summer Nights” to slumber parties and school dances, these are clearly kids comforting themselves and wanting to fit in with their peers, all while figuring out who they could become after high school. “We Go Together” is a jubilant ensemble triumph.
And this set has many winning turns. Mary Moore and Noah Harrison are endearing in the playful duet “Mooning”, Jake Reynolds charms when he chooses chords for “These Magic Changes”, Katie Lee impresses in the energetic hand jive contest, and Paul French brings a dangerous edge to testosterone-fed Kenickie.
Jocasta Almgill is the clear star, showing the pain and desperation behind Rizzo’s sharp-tongued bullying and slinky-hipped swagger, culminating in a fierce “There are worse things I could do.”
Peter Andre, if vocally underpowered, is surprisingly fun as a DJ mimicking Elvis and fantastical Teen Angel. It helps that he’s basically in on the joke, sending his own nerdy personality and incongruous presence into this professional musical theater cast. “Beauty School Drop Out” is a highlight thanks to its campy, witty staging, with an angel speeding by on a scooter and fashion doll heads parading by.
Frustratingly, the other songs don’t have that impact. Arlene Phillips’ choreography is indeed character-driven, from young rockabilly antics to guys throwing punches, growing crotches and straightening their hair, but you yearn for a number to really explode on the massive stage. of Dominion. Colin Richmond’s school gym-based set is also limiting.
But that’s the core problem with this production, which feels caught between grim realism and full-throttle, sugar-rush escapism. He feigns the former, like teasing a rumble with another gang, trouble with the cops, or a more hard-hitting look at predatory male behavior, but never quite commits. Although given how gleefully fans greeted the final megamix, I rather suspect it’s the softer, more inviting side of Fat which will make the audience ask “Tell me more, tell me more”.
Grease is at the Dominion Theater until October 29. Book tickets for Grease at the London Theatre.
Photo credit: Dan Partridge, Jocasta Almgill and company in Grease at the Dominion Theater (Photo by Manuel Harlan)