Y Cymro – 14/9/07
Isn’t it funny how times change? For years, the little square box in the corner of the living room was blamed for keeping people away from the theatre. These days, the (not so small box) is responsible for casting the most popular shows in the West End! Let’s start with ‘The Sound of Music’, and our own Connie Fisher who fully deserved to win the role of ‘Maria’, throwing Julie Andrew’s shadow to the winds for ever; then Lee Mead took on ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat’ and continues to astound the audiences with his velvet voice and revealing loin cloth (that I’m sure shrinks as the show goes on!). And now, the latest duo to step from the screen to the stage - Danny Bayne and Susan McFadden, winners of the show to find the two leads for the everlasting-bopping musical ‘Grease’.
Having not followed the Saturday night series on ITV, or its schedule clashing ‘Joseph’ seeking counterpart on the BBC, I couldn’t help feeling that whoever was going to win, had a massive task ahead of them, portraying these two iconic figures that were immortalized in the 1978 film version by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. But the original stage musical was created much earlier. In 1971, the American writers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey composed a ‘play with incidental music’ and staged it at a theatre in Chicago. When the producers Ken Waissman and Maxine Fox saw the production, they suggested that a musical would better suit the material. After re-working the script, ‘Grease’ opened in Manhattan on the 14th of February 1972 to great acclaim, and quickly transferred to Broadway. Barry Bostwick and Carole Demas were the original duet to portray the famous lovers ‘Danny Zuko’ and ‘Sandy Dumbrowski’, who attend Rydell High School in 1959 Chicago. The show follows their friendship, and deals with social issues such as gang warfare and teenage pregnancy, but also themes such as love, friendship and teenage conflicts.
As the show continued on Broadway, It wasn’t long before familiar names such as Patrick Swayze, John Travolta and Richard Gere donned the famous leather jacket. The show opened in London in June 1973, with the (unknown actor) Richard Gere staring alongside Elaine Page in the title roles.
So how about this newly found duet? Did they possess the vocal and acting skills to carry off these two main roles? Did they possess that magical charm and stage presence to entice yet another generation to empathise and fall in love with the two lovers? To be honest, and unfortunately, disappointingly not.
Danny and Susan have fantastic vocal abilities, as they clearly showed belting out their individual renditions of ‘Hopelessly Devoted to you’ and ‘Sandy’, but the main problem lies in the fact that these two young people are ‘performers’ or ‘dancers’ and not actors. ‘Danny’ needs to outshine all the guys in the gang; he needs to be good-looking but dangerously tough and manly; he must have the ability, with one look, to steal or break any female heart. Unfortunately, nineteen year old Danny Bayne does not. In the second act, he comes to the stage dressed in white shorts and T-shirt, with the intention of looking cool and sexy, but I’ve seen more sex appeal in a bucket and mop!
When the whole cast were on stage, the two main characters became lost in their midst; there was nothing about their personalities that made them stand out. It was only at the end of the show, during the finale, and following Sandy’s transformation, that I began to feel that both of them had finally found their characters, and began to shine.
What saves the production is the memorable music. The set is very simple, and after seeing shows such as the seven million pounds ‘Wicked’ or the twelve million pound ‘Lord of the Rings’, something smaller like this does look cheap and empty. After a slow start, introducing us to the band and some of the more popular melodies, it does take rather a long time for the ‘pedal to hit the metal’ and for the famous ‘Greased Lightning’ to reach the fast lane. Everything about the show was too nice-nice, perfect and clean, and I yearned for the austerity and coolness of the film version. Although she improved in the second act, ‘Rizo’ (Jayde Westaby) in her floral dresses, was again too timid to be the toughest of the girls. At one point, in the song ‘Mooning’, ‘Roger’ (Richard Hardwick) and ‘Jan’ (Laurie Scarth) completely upstaged the two main characters, simply because they obviously have more stage experience which shone through.
In my despair, I did find some scenes such as ‘Beauty School Drop Out’ and the ‘Finale’ which worked well, but the rest of the show could not sustain this standard.
‘Grease’ can be seen at the Piccadilly Theatre. For more information, visit www.greasethemusical.co.uk