BWW Reviews: COOL RIDER, Lyric Theatre, Jan 27 2014
Some people call Grease 2 a guilty pleasure. Many more consider it to simply be a bad film. And then there's the rest of us: people who come across it at an early age (often too young to understand what the 'Reproduction' lyrics we like to sing at the dinner table mean), genuinely love it to pieces and never let it go, who at various points in our lives come across fellow fans - there is no quicker bond - with whom we can recite the dialogue and sing the songs, fuelling our shared fervour, and on and on it goes.
That opener might have given an indication that this may not be the most objective review ever written but while a fan of the source material might be accused of having a predisposition towards having a positive reaction, I would suggest that in fact it gives a production more to prove. And after years (in some cases decades) of having to defend the film, surely a self-appointed superfan would be the first to point out a flaw.
It's just as well, then, that flaws in this concert production, the first of its kind in Europe, are virtually noneexistent. Producers Christopher D. Clegg and James DP Drury, along with director Guy Unsworth, musical director and orchestrator Lee Freeman and choreographer Matt Krzan have created an affectionate, cheeky yet highly skillful production that justifies its existence at every turn.
Corners have been cut, of course - various Rydell High staff members are condensed into Mr Stuart (an excellent Reece Shearsmith) and Ms Mason (Nadine Cox, every bit as good) who are given some of the best lines in the show, some lifted from various characters in the film and some brand new, there's no sign of Dolores Rebchuck, entirely pointless though she was and there isn't much in the way of set, props or stagecraft on show - a limitation turned swiftly into a unique asset with some hilarious lo-fi special effects courtesy of an occasionally bowling nun (Assistant Director Rick Woska).
The cast is full of remarkable performers who give their respective characters new leases of life while remaining faithful to their original - some of us might say iconic - portrayal. Particularly good are Aaron Sidwell as Michael (who is, it must be said, a good deal more tuneful than his predecessor), Ashleigh Gray as Stephanie (whose title song - complete with authentic ladder-straddling and tongue-flashing - is a scream-inducing highlight), Hannah Levane (a barnstorming Paulette), Bronté Barbé (note-perfect as Sharon) and dancer Callum Evans, who contributes some gasp-worthy backflips.
I'm usually of the opinion that unprompted audience participation and the dreaded singing along should be outlawed but with this performance, in every way a celebration, it seems sweetly appropriate. The lines we have heard so many times ("to who, to whom, to you that's whom!") echo around the theatre, and a shout of "Fast forward!" during Michael's somewhat dreary lament 'Charades', though strictly speaking impolite, is in context quite a wonderful moment which reflects many a fan's experience of wanting to get to the next bit of one's VHS copy way back when. (Incidentally, these days I love it in all its not-exactly-in-tune glory.)
To describe the reaction at the end of the performance as rapturous doesn't come close: the entire audience rose to its feet at some point during the final number 'We'll Be Together' and stayed there. I've never been so happy to hear a megamix in my life (in fact I doubt I've ever been happy at all) and a recap of the biggest songs of the night left those in attendance roaring and cheering for what seemed like an age - and yet one got the sense that, had the cast stayed on stage, it would have continued for hours.
An exhilarating evening the likes of which I have never experienced, Cool Rider is beyond triumphant. I left thinking that there is surely life in this production - a note to potential investors: we're out there, and if you stage it we will come - but if it really is for one night only, it will remain an overwhelming, joyous chance to revel in and celebrate a shared, beloved passion; truly, there is no guilt in this pleasure.