Review / Rock concert atmosphere in ‘Grease’

Musical theatre / “Grease: The Arena Experience”. Original musical written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, AIS Arena, until October 14. Reviewed by SAMARA PURNELL.

‘Grease.’ Photo by Glenn Pokorny

QUEENSLAND theatre company Harvest Rain’s raison d’etre is to incorporate local, young, aspiring talent into shows, giving them experience and joy,  so when hundreds of screaming youngsters pour into the “arena experience” to open “Grease”, that is realised, setting up a rock-concert atmosphere that   pervades the entire show.

In Canberra, at the AIS, around 350 lucky young locals make up the ensemble, with over 5000 performing by the end of the tour. The ensemble school students doubled up as groupies and fans during much of the show, including in the boy-band style performance of “These Magic Changes”, which was a highlights of the first act.

This was a far cry from the first performances of “Grease” in 1971 in a tram shed in Chicago.

Thomas Lacy is Danny now, with Ashleigh Taylor as his Sandy. Lacy’s voice is warm and rich, although we don’t get the opportunity to enjoy it at length, as this production retains the spread of songs throughout the cast, with Kenickie (Chris Geoghegan) singing the iconic “Greased Lightnin’”. Lacy blends in more with the boys in this production, rather than standing out as the cocky, irrepressible leader of the gang.

In the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, some of the ensemble numbers were left out, made background tracks or given to the leads, along with the addition of songs like “You’re The One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You”.

There were times when using the mass ensemble detracted from the leads and pulled the focus away from the main action, including during “Greased Lightnin’”, the hormonally-driven, all male number about a junk-heap of a car to be restored in the hope of pulling chicks. Here   it was performed using the huge number of extras, girls included, losing the context and meaning of the song.

With so much floor space dedicated to the cast, and the distance from audience to stage, it wasn’t suitable to go too long without the ensemble, which worked really well for the most part – “Born to Hand Jive” was executed superbly.

The Pink Ladies were humorous and likeable in their portrayals. Their accents were so shrill, a few quips and retorts were hard to pick up. The accents were less pronounced in the second half and Ruby Clark’s “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”, as the possibly pregnant Rizzo, packed a powerful punch.

The sweetly-sung duet “Mooning” between Lauren McKenna as Jan and Josh Whitten as Roger endearingly cemented his less-than-sophisticated courtship attempts.

“Raining on Prom Night” had Taylor sounding reminiscent of Olivia Newton John, and in “Hopelessly Devoted to You” she let loose and hit her straps.

Christine Anu cameoed as Teen Angel, with her feathered flock of back-ups. Vocally dramatic, Anu subtly echoed the vocal style of the Pink Ladies, while giving a commanding performance.

A panel of LED lights was used as a backdrop, projecting clouds and sky for the outdoor scenes and disco balls and bright colours for others. It also served as the entry point for the actors.

Callum Mansfield as choreographer, with the rehearsal team and wardrobe, have done an incredible job in pulling together such a cohesive, polished, slickly-costumed group of extras, who succeeded in keeping the energy level high throughout, maintaining their characters and focus.

Sandy’s final entrance as the “fantasy” girl and Danny’s subsequent reaction had less dynamism in the timing and the on-stage choreography than anticipated and more focus on the entire group.

The audience was totally on board though in this fun and funny, slick production.

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