In a stern pre-dance-off warning to the students of Rydell High, school principal Miss Lynch announces that “anyone doing tasteless or vulgar movements will be immediately disqualified.” If only. Nothing about the umpteenth revival of David Gilmore’s hyper-efficient, all-smiling 1993 production could is the slightest bit racy, let alone dirty. But aren’t Danny and his mates supposed to be mechanics? “Grease,” it turns out, is not the word. “Slick,” or “soulless,” is the word.
And will audiences care? Probably not. Almost 4 million potential ticket buyers watched the final of the preceding ITV reality show, “Grease Is the Word,” in which Danny Bayne and Susan McFadden won the roles of Danny and Sandy. Correction: They won the roles of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. As it turns out, it wasn’t really a competition to find performers; the producers were after impersonators.
Gilmore’s production was the first to unstitch the original show in order to insert the hits from what is still the highest-grossing movie musical of all time (although “Hairspray” is now snapping at its heels). It was at that point that “Grease” became less a standard tuner and more a karaoke-style event. Auds get to applaud their memories as they watch the bust-a-gut cast attempt to live up to the immortal images of screen originals.
Unlike West End hit “Dirty Dancing,” the production is not hopelessly devoted to the slavish copying of the movie’s every line and moment. Yet even though it retains the shape and plotting of the first stage conception, the cast is employed less to create than to re-create.
The good news is that although blue-eyed, perfectly coiffed Bayne cannot match Travolta’s smoldering sex appeal — in his defense, he doesn’t have a lens to flirt with — he’s got a strong voice, appealing self-confidence and an ace up his sleeve. This guy is a former British hip-hop, freestyle and Latin-American dance champion. Whenever he’s dancing, he exhibits real zest.
However, it’s a case of exhibiting rather than acting. But then any scope for depth or subtlety has been steamrollered out of the hyperactive, cartoon-like production. The show is playing a relatively small, 1,200-seat theater, but even in an Olympic-size stadium, the cast wouldn’t have to add anything to their performances. No one speaks in this show: The boys yell, and the girls either squeal or shriek. The real victim is McFadden’s Sandy.
The role never exactly required the acting chops of Angela Lansbury — bland blonde virgin loses guy so instantly discovers her inner slut — but McFadden is given nothing to do but sing nicely and pose naively in ’50s dresses and cardigans. Predominantly a singer, she has played the role of Cinderella twice and in this performance seems to be doing so again.
McFadden and Bayne look good together, but until he sweeps her up in his arms to carry her off at the curtain call, there’s zero chemistry between them because no one seems to have encouraged them to listen to or respond to one another.
Despite some added modern acrobatic backflips, Arlene Phillips’ choreography now looks slightly dated. There’s tons of wildly energetic movement, but the numbers don’t build. It’s symbolic of the show as a whole. The grinning, jiving cast go at it hell for leather but alongside the overbright lights — Mark Henderson’s hectic lighting plot has more chases than “The Fugitive” — it’s all more effortful than dramatically effective.
The London revival opens just two weeks ahead of a Broadway “Grease” also cast via a reality show, bowing Aug. 19 at the Brooks Atkinson.