Mon. Sep 25th, 2023

What: Grease
Who: Clarence Street Theatre Trust
Directed by: Kyle Chuen
Where: Clarence Street Theatre
When: Saturday night. Season continues until December 17.
Reviewed by: Mike Mather
There can surely be no greater thrill for any kind of stage performer than to hear an audience wholeheartedly responding to your act.
For the cast and crew on the opening night of this finely-tuned production that would have been the payoff – and, for number after flawless number, it would have been a payoff dealt in spades.
Well, they were not quite dancing in the aisles. This was, of course, an audience of New Zealanders. Generally, we Kiwis are by nature a taciturn bunch, and even if we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves we don’t like to show it too much.
So no aisle dancing. But in just about any other country there would have been, along with a standing ovation. And those on stage at the Clarence Street Theatre would have completely deserved it – along with all the joyous cheering and hooting and hollering they did receive from the full house.
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First nights can be nerve-wracking for all concerned. There’s usually at least one or two flubbed lines, a missed cue, a dropped prop. These guys and gals were, however, completely on-song and in-synch. It was slick.
And they were also obviously having the time of their lives, which also was not lost on the audience.
You would think the nerves would be showing at least a little bit. That they would show themselves to be at least a tiny bit daunted. Grease is, after all, a pretty big deal.
Since the early 1970s Grease has been the first and last word in high school rock musicals. With a tranche of memorable numbers ingrained into the collective consciousness (thanks largely to that hit cinematic adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John), its cultural impact would be as great as, say, Jesus Christ Superstar or The Rocky Horror Show.
Thanks to the deft directorial hand of Kyle Chuen, ably assisted by musical supervisor Nick Braae and choreographer Michaela Gilling, this production is on-brand and high-class.
And that trio’s abilities evidently flowed through to the people on stage, who all appeared as competent, confident and completely self-assured as main character Danny Zuko when he is making a move to seduce some swooning girl.
The Danny Zuko of this show, Felix Rowe, had obviously been studying Travolta’s performance in depth, and had his nuances – particularly that nervous laugh – down pat. As Sandy Dombrowski, Rachael Bloemendal was in remarkable voice.
So too was Helen Drysdale-Dunn as Rizzo, particularly in her poignant moment in the spotlight singing There Are Worse Things I Could Do. As the “Teen Angel”, Ben Wilson took to the stage like a conquering hero for the number Beauty School Dropout.
But it is the hit songs that really make the show what it is. Backed by the full ensemble the cast belted out Summer Nights, Greased Lightning, and You’re the One that I Want like they had been doing it every day of their lives.
It wasn’t perfect. Much loved as it is, Clarence Street has not got the greatest sound system, and you sometimes had to struggle to make out lyrics and dialogue. Let’s hope that’s something the new theatre they are building around the corner in Victoria St gets very right.
But that’s a minor quibble. There are not many shows that you could describe as a guaranteed good time. This would be one of the exceptions.
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