‘Grease’ was slick.
Bringing everyone together like ‘A-Wop Bop A-Loo Bop’, Spotlight Theatrical Company is keen to ensure that ‘Grease’ is still the word among Southeast Queensland audiences. Presenting a reimagined version of the infamous hit musical, this community theatre group has definitely gone all out in this epic rendition.
Based on the 1978 film of the same name, which starred John Travolta and the late Olivia Newton-John, ‘Grease’ follows ten teens as they navigate peer pressure, social politics, personal beliefs and love. With book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the score is heavily influenced by the sounds of rock and roll. It also includes all the classic tunes one will commonly recognise from the tune ‘Grease Megamix’, which is often belted at karaoke parties.
Director, Joshua McCann-Thomson has fused masculine and feminine energy in a version that celebrates self-expression and interpretation. It’s no secret that ‘Grease’ is a hotly contested choice of theatre. Fitting into the “well, it was a different time” cinematic canon, audiences generally fall into two categories – it’s either one of your favourites and full of nostalgia or, alternatively, you recognise the problematic elements within the narrative and feel uncomfortable with its outdated themes. McCann-Thomson is quick to call out these segmenting reactions in the program, instead choosing to focus his vision for this story on inner power. This concept delivers, as McCann-Thomson’s interpretation really highlights the actors finding themselves within their characters.
There’s a freshness in this version of ‘Grease’ that explores creative freedom. It would be interesting to see what dialogue or songs have been cut from this rendition, as it really felt like a unique version of ‘Grease’ with its technological additions and characterisations. Due to the production aesthetics, this version felt like it sat somewhere in the 1980s, despite its modern concept. For those unaware, ‘Grease’ is originally set in the 1950s, and with the script’s outdated themes, it begs the question of how flexible the story’s time period can be. Still, McCann-Thomson has taken a bold approach.
The 80s aesthetic, as previously mentioned, was emphasised in set design by Clay English and McCann-Thomson. Neon, retro wave tube lighting hung at various angles from the centre rig and really captured the audience’s full attention, especially against a multi-levelled set that was painted completely black. This lighting fixture, while completely spectacular, did present some lighting obstacles, as it meant that there were often dark spots within the stage’s lighting. As a result, the show heavily relied on spot operators, and actors were often not lit. English and McCann-Thomson included some other great set elements, like a black playground slide that made for a fun and quirky entrance, and a rain-walled booth that gained an audible ‘wow’ from the audience during ‘It’s Raining on Prom Night’.
Audio design by Nick Willner also went down a modern route, with scene changes often masked by a soundscape mixed like a radio tuning in and out of the radio station that cruiser Vince Fontaine was hosting. Willner also added in some other sound elements in this frequency, outside the musical scope, like dialogue from the actual movie of ‘Grease’. While this technological aspect really lifted the show and attempted to pay homage to the original, it may toe the licensing line.
Vocal Director, Shari Willner, has worked wonders on the vocal score of ‘Grease’ and should be commended for really giving cast members ownership of their songs. It felt as though actors added their own stamp on their tracks, with many unique vocal riffs that made songs sound like a cover rather than an imitation. A particular highlight was during ‘Freddy, My Love’ where Samantha Sherrin as Marty incorporated melodic runs and cemented herself as a powerhouse vocalist. Another great interpretation was during ‘Mooning’ where Greyson Vaughn’s Roger gave massive teen heartthrob vibes with his equally great vocal runs.
Matching the impact of vocals, Choreographer Jessica Ng really put the ensemble through their paces with synergetic dance moves and complex routines. Ng created incredible tableaus that really packed a punch. The opening and ending routines of the show, especially their accompanying visual imagery, were goosebump-provoking, and really bookended the production nicely. It did feel that at times that some cast members were struggling to keep up in some of the faster-paced routines, in particular during ‘Grease Lightnin’, however, this should smooth out over the course of the season.
The large cast all had their part to play in bringing the show to life and looked like they were enjoying their time together on stage, which in turn made the finale song of both acts ‘We Go Together’ feel extremely special.
Portia Morris as the kind-natured Sandy was wonderfully compelling and had the vocal range to match. During ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’, Morris paid a wonderful tribute to the Aussie icon, Olivia Newton-John, and also held her own place during the song. As the too cool for school Danny, Matt Domingo was smooth and had a slow burn in the show, gradually growing more comfortable and confident in his vocals.
Other standout performances included Tiahni Wilton as Frenchie, who had a Bernadette Rostenkowski high-pitch to her voice and fun-bubbly nature; Samantha Sherrin as the previously mentioned Marty, who was layered with sass and hungry for gossip; Isabella Wiesenthal’s feisty Rizzo, which gave a powerful and heartwrenching performance of ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’; and Debbie Tanna as the comical old maid, Miss Lynch.
Dean Giltinan as the magical drag act Teen Angel was a wonderful addition and really added a nice, materialistic layer to the scene, especially with Giltinan’s plastic-plumped body suit. The little costume reveals added some great razzle and dazzle to the song, ‘Beauty School Dropout’. It would have been great to see more moments where Giltinan could stand and deliver this song, as there were many props and elements that came on and off stage during the piece, which made things slightly chaotic and distracting from the main performance. A small edit on these choices might make the pace tighter, giving Giltinan a chance to interact with Frenchie and the audience.
For fans of the movie, Spotlight Theatrical Company’s ‘Grease’ is one to watch. While there were some opening night jitters from the company, there’s no doubt that this musical will have you shakin’ at this theatrical hop. So, grab your opportunity to hand jive before this school year’s out.
‘Grease’ performs until Saturday, 10 December 2022 at Spotlight Theatrical Company. For more information visit their website.
Images by Vargo Studios.