You’d be hard-pressed to find an individual that was not familiar with Grease. Whether it be familiarity with the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta film, the musical itself, or even the megamix that is religiously played at all milestone birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and christenings. The show itself is a great way to bring together theatre-people and ‘non’ theatre-people, to enjoy and appreciate the experience of musical theatre. Unfortunately, Grease seems to have somewhat of a negative stigma attached to it now for potential auditionees, and in turn, theatre companies very rarely take the risk in putting it on, for fear of not being able to find a viable cast. This has found a good majority of the most recent productions of Grease being staged as high school musicals. NOVA should be commended on bringing this crowd favourite back, and allowing some of Melbourne amateur theatre’s favourite performers to thrive in dream roles that haven’t been up for grabs for some time.
The direction of the piece was exactly what you’d expect when heading along to a production of Grease. The characterisation did seem quite two-dimensional, though it could be argued that this is what is endearing about Grease for audiences– the ease and simplicity of it all. It was obvious with some individual performances that the cast were allowed to really make their characters their own, particularly when not the focus of a scene. Some of those on stage really took this on board and flourished accordingly, while other seemed to feel less comfortable with this freedom.
The musical direction was generally good. It seemed apparent that the cast were made up of performers that ranged quite significantly in theatrical experience, and in vocal ability. It was obvious that a lot of work had gone into ensuring that the cast were able to blend well enough together. While not all performers were vocally consistent, either with the other cast members, or even with themselves across the two acts, what was refreshing was the commitment to acknowledging their own limits and making this part of their characterisation. As a side note – it was actually really refreshing to experience songs such as ‘Grease’, ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, ‘Sandy’ and ‘You’re The One That I Want’ on stage, as these as optional additions and more times than not, companies choose not to feature them in the show. These are some of the most well-known and well-loved numbers of the film, so it was a brilliant decision to include these, so as to not alienate the film-loving audience.
Choreography was fun and era appropriate. There were some very classic sequences that looked like they had been lifted straight from the movie, and while this might have seemed lacking in inspiration, it is really just what an audience that loves Grease wants to see. Movement was simple yet effective and made good use of the space.
The set was very impressive, with the main centrepiece being a giant jukebox that certainly demanded attention and set the tone. All set pieces that were brought in and out gave the right retro 50s vibe and created a sense of grandeur. Authentic costuming and props added to this brilliantly, particularly the car brought on for ‘Greased Lightning’ which, if the response from the audience was anything to go by, was definitely a crowd favourite. The lighting design certainly supported the authentic Grease feel. It appeared to be very well thought through and quite inspired, adding the depth that a show such as this often craves. The lowered, visible lighting rig on stage made for some very effective visuals. In saying this, there were at times that transitions between lighting state seemed a little lengthy, as well as some interesting colour combinations that hindered the pleasing aesthetic. This often involved a lot of green. Perhaps this was a bit of a hint at NOVA’s 2016 production of newly released Wicked? In any case, for the most part the lighting design was an asset.
The T-bird boys gave fairly consistent performances of the stereotypical 50s teenage ‘tool-cool-for-school’ boof-heads, with a sense of immaturity that added a great energy to the piece. Their performances were not always polished, but this certainly added to the characterisation. Particularly impressive was the commitment to character shown by Lachlan Nash who played Doody. He was incredibly engaging throughout and his energy was infectious.
The Pink Ladies had a great chemistry together on stage and they certainly worked with each other relatively well. Each girl had very distinct personality traits and individual nuances that they kept throughout the entire show. This was particularly noticeable and commendable during choreographed numbers. Again, performances were not always polished, but it was indeed endearing.
As Rizzo, Hayley Pitterman presented a beautiful concoction of apathy, sass and vulnerability. Her performance of ‘There are worse things I could do’ was exceptionally powerful. Her scenes with Giulian DeVincentis (Kenickie) were quintessentially Rizzo. DeVincentis came into his own during audience favourite ‘Greased Lightning’, though in adopting the ‘tough guy’ persona, he lacked diction when delivering much of his dialogue which made it very difficult to follow and come to truly know the character. In saying that however, this tough outer-shell certainly allowed for a moment of great fragility to shine through in DeVincentis’ performance, during the revelation of Rizzo’s pregnancy.
As Danny, it is clear that Leighton Irwin has certainly put some research into creating his character, very often channeling John Travolta’s film performance. Throughout, he was relatively convincing as the leader of the pack. The highlight of Irwin’s performance came when he commanded the stage during ‘Sandy’. This performance was rather melodramatic and a little exaggerated, though it seemed to work – playing up the cheesiness of the piece as opposed to trying to make it something it’s not.
It was evident from the moment Ruby Voss began singing that the decision to cast her as leading lady Sandy was absolute perfection. Her vocal performance was certainly the highlight of her time on stage – powerful with such control and beautifully dynamic, her ‘Hopelessly Devoted’ was stunning.
It would be completely remiss of me to not make special mention of Jess Marshall who played the quirky Frenchy. Her energy just did not falter. She was her character to the fullest capacity from the moment she stepped on stage, until her very last bow. The nuances and mannerisms she had allocated to the character allowed for some real development. At times, it did feel as though some of what Marshall was doing was unintentionally pulling focus from what was going on in the narrative unfolding on stage, but at the same time, she certainly has set the bar for the rest of the cast to match, and should not dim her own light at all.
In terms of the ensemble, as mentioned previously, it really did seem like a group that varied greatly in experience on stage. For the most part they looked like they were really enjoying the party that the show provides and approached all that was thrown at them with positivity and fun.
Grease is one of those shows that is so easy to lose yourself to. It doesn’t require much of the audience other than reminiscing and perhaps even singing along. NOVA’s presentation of this piece is well worth the night out for a bit of fun and nostalgia.