Catchy tunes and nostalgia aren’t enough to make this new production of an old favourite relevant today, writes Claire Trolio.
- Reading time • 6 minutesMusical Theatre
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Grease, Drew Anthony Creative ·
The Royale Theatre, 3 June 2022 ·
I’ve been wondering over the last couple of days, in the lead-up to seeing Drew Anthony Creative’s Grease at the new Royale Theatre, about the relevance of this musical in 2022.
You know the drill: boy and girl have a summer romance, boy behaves like a jerk to girl in front of his friends, boy makes a small effort to change to win back girl, girl rewards his efforts by undergoing a complete character transformation. They all live happily ever after.
The girl, Sandy (played by Elaina O’Connor), embodies the virgin-whore dichotomy. Her innocence is hammered home throughout the show. She’s allowed to express her sexuality in the end of the narrative because she’s already proven that she’s chaste and virtuous. Besides, they’re in love and her sexiness is a gift for Danny (John Berry).
Contrast Sandy with the meatiest character Rizzo (Charlotte Louise). She’s confident, brazen and has sexual agency. But the work criticises her, gives her a pregnancy scare and then redeems her with an offer from a teenage boy to “make an honest woman out of her”. It’s a bit outdated.
There is room within Grease to challenge the status quo. Charlotte Louise’s rendition of Rizzo’s heartfelt solo “There are Worse Things I Could Do” in the face of some serious slut-shaming is the most stirring part of this production. Yet she’s still presented as an unlikeable mean girl who makes bad decisions.
The script is peppered with homophobia, references to diet culture and some dicey issues of consent each packaged as a joke. A date rape reference is simply ignored. Yes, Grease was written in the 1970s and set in the 1950s, but there’s no excusing this content now.
This new production, from producer and director Drew Anthony and musical director Joe Louis Robinson, doesn’t address this. Instead they’ve put together a trip down memory lane that retains both the good and the bad elements of Grease.
The songs are still catchy, and the cast don’t miss a beat, even when some microphone pick-ups are missed. The jaunty choreography works best when the entire ensemble fill the small set; there’s strength in numbers here.
Elaina O’Connor rules the stage with her strong vocals and confident movement as Sandy. Across from her, teenager John Berry does his best John Travolta impersonation in the role of Danny. It’s a good one, this guy has got the triple threat covered, but I crave some originality. With his whole career ahead of him I’m sure he’ll find that self-assuredness to make a role his own.
Though Grease was originally a stage production, this show heavily references the 1978 cinema version that’s become so ingrained in our cultural consciousness, through the entire cast’s delivery of dialogue and songs and even borrowing the movie’s animated opening credits.
But film references and hammed up caricatures might be a case of playing the room.
The Royale is housed in the new Planet Royale complex, the old IMAX theatre venue in Northbridge. Complete with VIP tables, the theatre itself gives a Las Vegas vibe. It’s casual, with people popping in and out to buy drinks during the show.
I get the impression that this production is made for Grease fans who will enjoy the nostalgia (and not feminist killjoys.) If that’s the case, the cast missed a ripe opportunity to get the audience more involved. The intimate venue and the addition of some on-stage audience seating lends itself to working the crowd.
Ultimately, for me, it comes down to the fact that the aim of creating a fun night out doesn’t excuse the reinforcement of 1950s patriarchal norms. Not every piece of theatre has to change the world, but we can at least choose to critique what came before, rather than uphold it.
Pictured top: The T-Birds with John Berry as Danny (centre). Photo supplied
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