first night

Grease

Simon Lynch gets a mixed bag from Infinity Musical Theatre's production of 'Grease'

 

I’ll be honest – it’s been a very, very long time since I last saw Olivia Newton-John don her eye-wateringly tight trousers, but I still harbour a fondness for a show so often scorned by theatre snobs. It was, therefore, with an intrigued trepidation I ventured out to Queen’s Campus, Stockton, to watch Infinity Musical Theatre’s latest offering, which promised excitement and rock ‘n’ roll energy. Yet although director Astrid Pons’ production had moments of quality, it wasn’t quite electrifying enough, and I left having witnessed a fairly mixed bag.

The story of Grease is familiar and straightforward – Danny and Sandy’s whirlwind summer romance is cut short back at school when Danny (Jesse Chambers), to save face in front of his greaser gang, brushes her off. Chambers performance varied from ordinary to impressive – his vocals were a highlight and worked particularly well with the rock ‘n’ roll nature of the music, yet his acting often appeared stiff and uncomfortable (though as the show moves through performance week I’ve no doubt he will grow into the role). Christie Chan delivered a near-flawless interpretation of Sandy – ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ in particular was angelic. Their voices blended well together, and after a few early disappointing exchanges, their chemistry eventually blossomed.

Adam Fairhurst, playing the surly and aggressive Kenickie, also impressed. His gruff vocals matched the character’s physicality and his performance was one of the more believable of the night. The same sadly cannot be said of Niffi Oseyemi, playing Rizzo, Kenickie’s love interest and leader of the Pink Ladies; from the outset, Rizzo came across as cold and one-dimensional. ‘There Are Worse Thing I Could Do’, though executed well and show-casing her bold upper register, was consequently devoid of believability. Although Oseyemi was comfortable with the character’s sassier side, Rizzo’s vulnerability never quite materialised, and I was left desperately searching for some sort of empathy.

Grease has always relied heavily on its infectious adolescent enthusiasm and energy to win over an audience, yet on opening night, Pons’ cast got off to a slow start. A laborious beginning was livened by Alex Callaghan’s Doody, whose smart delivery of lines, on-point physicality and impeccable comic timing ensured the audience were well and truly in the palm of his hand. Carolyn Lithgo (Marty) also impressed with a sweet performance of ‘Freddy, My Love’, whilst Ellie Stankovska’s Patty was just the right side of irritating to have the crowd laughing (a special mention must also go to Victor Chen, who seemed determined to insert as many spins and lapel-strokes as he could as Vince Fontaine).

Returning to my seat for the second act, I worried for the cast. However, within moments, my fears were dissipated as we were transported to the High School dance. The difference already was palpable and credit must be given to the band, who injected some much needed vitality into the show. Under the musical direction of Lai Chui Ting, this energy seeped into those onstage, who noticeably upped their games for the second half. By the time we arrived at Danny and Sandy’s ‘You’re the One That I Want’, toes were indeed tapping and heads were nodding.

Unfortunately, one of the failings of this production was the vast disparity between individual performances and chorus cohesion. Many of the group dialogue scenes fell flat, particularly earlier on, causing the audience’s attention to waiver and humour to be lost. The group musical numbers went a similar way; too often, concentration on the casts’ faces was clearly etched, as the group struggled to remember lyrics and choreography. However, the group should be commended for dealing incredibly well with the technical issues that hindered much of the show’s potential. Mic problems, lights left on during blackouts and the (very) audible whispers of the lighting crew did unfairly detract from the show, but these are problems I am sure can be ironed out over the course of the week. Indeed, it was fitting that ‘Greased Lightning’ (earlier marred by a faulty microphone) was offered as an impromptu encore – Fairhurst deserved his moment, and brought the house down.

The stage in the ARC Stockton is expansive, and director Astrid Pons chose to keep the set minimal throughout. A screen and projector were generally utilised cleverly and effectively as a backdrop, particularly in the drive-thru scene, but such a sparse design sucked the life out of many of the show’s more intimate moments. Poor directorial choices also affected other aspects of the show – ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, though performed beautifully by Chan, was hampered by the distracting movements of other cast members and the choice of back screen, which was jarring given the nature of the song.

Overall, Infinity’s production was a mixed bag – some stellar individual performances let down by some sub-par group numbers. Although many of my fellow theatre-goers seemed impressed, for me, it was a show that was almost, but not quite there. 

28 February 2014

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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