BWW REVIEW: GREASE THE ARENA EXPERIENCE Restyles The Broadway Version Of The Classic Musical With The Addition Of An Ensemble Of Over 500 Children And Young Adults.
Friday 19th January 2018, 8pm, QUDOS Bank Arena
Harvest Rain Theatre Company brings GREASE THE ARENA EXPERIENCE To Sydney to entertain and engage young performers for a short summer season. As with previous productions, Harvest Rain Theatre Company's latest production allows young performers to receive intensive training and be involved in a large-scale musical.
Utilising the 1972 Broadway version of GREASE with some minor variations to satisfy fans of the 1978 movie, Director and Choreographer Callum Mansfield has created a high energy production that utilises an ensemble that ranges in age from 10 to 21 years of age to support the core professional cast. Designer Josh McInstosh has created a large thrust stage which leads out to a large central stage, complete with revolve. Steps up to raised platforms and down to the main arena floor allow for vertical variety whilst doubling as implied furniture, from school lunch tables to beds. Trudy Dalgleish's lighting design gives the work a rock concert feel with overhead and ground lighting sweeping over the stage and audience as well as bordering the central stage. J.H. Taylor's sound design seeks to reinforce that concert sound with a wash of sound but unfortunate contact with the body microphones creates unwanted feedback. It was however surprising that whilst an LED screen formed part of the rear wall, it was under utilised and the opportunity to project larger images of the performance around the venue was not taken. Given the distance between the audience and the central stage, projections may have made facial expressions and performances more obvious.
Of the core characters, presented by professional performers, standouts are Ruby Clark as Rizzo, Lauren McKenna as Jan, Barnaby Reiter as Doody, Stephen Valeri as Roger and Michael Nunn as Sonny. Clark captures Rizzo's pain and pride in There Are Worse Things I Could Do with a wonderful sensitivity and vulnerability which contrasts well with the Alpha female's no nonsense tough image. Unlike some of the other performers Clark thankfully does not try to recreate the movie sound, making the role her own rather than trying to imitate Stockard Channing's iconic performance. McKenna captures Jan's insecurity and innocence well as presents the chubbier Pink Lady with a gentle playfulness and youthfulness as Jan starts falling for Roger. Reiter presents Those Magic Nights solo and It's Raining On Prom Night and Rock And Roll Party Queen with Valeri and Nunn, with the three having beautiful vocals and all accompanied by Reiter's acoustic guitar. The trio also ensure that their portrayal of the three more minor T-Birds are presented with a liveliness and enthusiasm without becoming too cheesy or trying to emulate their movie counterparts.
Of the featured performers, Christine Anu and Isaiah Firebrace present Teen Angel and Johnny Casino with the requisite flair and confidence. Anu gives Teen Angel a delicious sassiness as she helps put Frenchy back on track and Firebrace ensures that his presentation of Born To Hand Jive has the necessary energy whilst ensuring that his performance is balanced with the large scale dance number, sharing the spotlight easily.
Other roles however were overplayed to create caricatures that lacked the humanity and honesty that could have been injected into the portrayals. Meghan O'Shea lacks the gravitas to deliver a realistic Sandy, instead opting for a Disney lolly polish style performance with stilted dialogue and missing the opportunity to land Sandy's iconic solos with any conviction. Damon Wade also overexaggerates his Danny as he tries to channel John Travolta whilst lacking the credibility to pull off the swagger and too cool attitude which is also undermined by vocals that aren't as solid as one would expect. Stacey De Waard and Emily Monsma present Frenchy and Marty with overexaggerated accents with De Waard particularly trying to replicate Didi Conn's unique sound but lacking Conn's high tones, making her sound like an older woman rather than a high school student.
The large ensemble of young performers is however a delight and Mansfield and his assistant choreographers Maureen Bowra and Claire Owen along with the dance captains Dan Venz, Rebel Bliss, Monique Dawes, Gerry Murphy and Ellen Tuffley must be congratulated for their efforts in coordinating so many people. With poodle skirts, jeans and white sneakers, the mass ensemble deliver great crowd scenes to create a rock concert vibe and fill out the school dance crowd with well-coordinated detailed choreography. The ensemble all appeared well disciplined and engaged, demonstrating enjoyment of being part of the experience.
With an audience that seemed centred on the family and friends of the youngsters involved, this production seems to satisfy as the ensemble is utilised well throughout. With some strong performances in the work, this is a nice little trip down memory lane. The Sydney season has finished but the production is moving on to Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra and young performers can audition to be part of the cast in their nearest city.