After Any Dream Will Do’s Lee Mead opened last month in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (See Review Round-up, 18 Jul 2007), Theatreland’s latest pair of reality TV stars - Grease Is the Word winners Danny Bayne and Susan McFadden – attempted to claim their prize last night (8 August, previews from 25 July) at the Piccadilly Theatre, where they made their West End debuts playing Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski in Grease (See Also Today’s WOS TV).
The 1972 Broadway musical was immortalised by the 1978 film version, in which John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John played the high school sweethearts. The musical originally ran for six years in the West End, first at the Dominion and then at the Cambridge, returning to London for a short run back at the Dominion in 2001 and at the Victoria Palace in 2002/3. In between, it has toured the UK extensively, produced since 1993 by David Ian (a judge on Grease Is the Word) and Paul Nicholas, both of whom are also producing the upcoming Broadway production of Grease (opening 19 August), again featuring leads cast by public vote via reality TV.
The London production of Grease - which has book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey - is directed by David Gilmore and choreographed by Arlene Phillips. The new West End also features How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’s Siobhan Dillon (as Patty Simcox), Sean Mulligan (Kenickie), Jayde Westaby (Rizzo), Lee Martin (Doody), Bennett Andrews (Sonny), Laurie Scarth (Jan), Charlie Cameron (Marty), Alana Phillips (Frenchy) and Jason Capewell (Vince / Teen Angel).
Unfortunately, while the critical response was positive for How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’s Connie Fisher last year and Lee Mead last month, it was third time unlucky in the reality TV stakes for Danny Bayne and Susan McFadden. While some credited Bayne for his energetic dancing and McFadden for her requisite Sandy wholesomeness, first night critics deemed that neither had sufficient charisma to “hold the stage” for an evening. They weren’t helped by a “too old” supporting cast, “uninspired” choreography and a generally “lacklustre” production. Several reviewers used the disappointment of Grease as an opportunity to call for an end of reality TV casting, despite the fact that How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? second runner-up Siobhan Dillon did win some warm notices for her “endearing” turn as cheerleader Patty.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “As at the opening of this production by David Gilmore in 1993, I feel defeated by decibel levels and churlish with disappointment. The amplification has a tinny, invasive quality that’s the enemy of musical enjoyment … It’s impossible to isolate acting talent, or even personality impact, in the first half because the entire cast is encouraged to squeal, squawk, face-pull and cackle like a cage full of angry baboons in the zoo. No one bears even a passing resemblance to a human being. But as Arlene Phillips’ whiplash musical staging (re-created by Stori James) kicks in, you can see that Bayne does indeed have a powerful stage presence and his command of the moves is total … McFadden’s Sandy, however, remains a dumb cluck … She’s sweet enough, but nothing special, and her singing lacks depth or resonance. Jayde Westaby makes a mark as the suddenly pregnant Rizzo and Charlie Cameron is a prettily pneumatic Marti. Siobhan Dillon, one of the best of the runners-up in the BBC search for Maria programme … is rather hidden away as Patty but will surely have a second chance in the near future.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “If you want proof of the imaginative poverty of the West End today, you need look no further than Grease … Of course, there are always the Jacobs-Casey songs which the audience greets like old friends … For me it is the Arlene Phillips dance routines that alone give the show its spark … But the focus, inevitably, is on the two winners of the TV reality contest … Danny Bayne as the hero displays bags of energy and has one good moment when he puffs on a last fag before setting off on a track race, but he doesn't possess the mocking insolence of John Travolta in the movie. As for Susan McFadden, she has all of Sandy's wholesomeness and sings prettily, but has a painfully limited range of physical expression: in her big ballad, ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, she expresses romantic sadness by pressing her palms to her stomach as if suffering from cramps. Only Jayde Westaby as the tart-tongued Rizzo and Charlie Cameron as a Monroe look-a-like rise above the prevailing ordinariness.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (two stars) – “Bayne and McFadden make their initial entrance on plinths either side of Terry Parsons’ neon-lit set, looking rather like two shop-window mannequins. It’s an accurate indication of what’s to come; though they sing nicely enough, they go on to give rather stiff performances … To be fair, what surrounds them is not a great deal better: they are supported by a cast, in David Gilmore’s efficient but lacklustre production, of garishly coloured and totally flat cartoon characters. Here they come, the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds, stalking out of a cloud of dry ice, some of them looking conspicuously too old, rather than too cool, for school … They all flounce and pose their way through Arlene Phillips’ uninspired and, on the whole, undemanding choreography. Despite a burst of camp athleticism to ‘Greased Lightnin’ … and some vigorous hand-jiving at the hop, it is disappointingly short on dazzle. At no point do we care one iota what becomes of any of them or their teen romances … If reality TV is chewing gum for the eyes, for some this Grease will be bubble-gum fun — even if it is overstretched and losing its flavour.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “Admittedly, it's hard to resist the appeal of Grease … The excellent band deliver the joyously affectionate Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey rock 'n' roll spoofs (here augmented by the additional songs from the 1978 movie) with terrific punch. But David Gilmore's production seems to have suffered from the Chinese Whispers syndrome. It's now at so many removes from any real truth about 1950s style that it's like a grotesque, hyperactive animated cartoon. The grittiness, charm and humanity of the piece have got lost in a slick, neon-lit, and soulless theatrical neverland. What about the competition-winning leads? Is the power they're supplyin' electrifyin'? Not really. As chief greaser Danny, Danny Bayne exudes a certain sex appeal and he sings and dances with more than efficiency, but the performance lacks the attractiveness of natural humour … Susan McFadden doesn't muster much magic or bring out your protective instincts as the square virginal Sandy. But then there's not much individuality in the company as a whole and even the best moments feel dodgy. The actress playing black-sheep Rizzo looks old enough to be the Rydell High civics teacher ... With its vestigial, embarrassing plot, Grease comes over, in this high-energy, high-decibel but completely unaffecting production, as a jukebox masquerading as a musical.”
Sarah Crompton in the Daily Telegraph - “It's not that Danny Bayne and Susan McFadden are awful as Danny and Sandy. It's just that whatever qualities made people vote for them shrivel and fade in the spotlight's harsh glare. Bayne makes John Travolta look like Olivier, substituting a twitch of the collar and a curl of the lip for anything approaching acting … McFadden - sister of Westlife's Brian - has a sweet smile and a strong voice. Unfortunately, she belts out every ballad as if it were karaoke night; there's no finesse or feeling … Both have clearly been ferociously coached. But nobody has been able to lend them charisma, or the ability to hold the stage … The set, by Terry Parsons, is rudimentary, Arlene Phillips' choreography is vigorous but predictable ... The T-Birds prowl their way through the bad-boy gags, the Pink Ladies giggle and primp and Jayde Westaby gets more emotion and sass out of Rizzo than the show has any right to expect. Siobhan Dillon … produces an endearing comic cameo as Patty. Tim Newman wrenches every ounce of humour out of the hapless geek Eugene. But for all their efforts, there is something laboured about the whole enterprise. This Grease is so busy trumpeting how enjoyable it is, that all real joy seems to vanish.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “How under-sexed, how under-done and under par I found director David Gilmore's attempt to put the brilliantine back into Grease … Neither of the leads, a less than dynamic Danny Bayne as gang-leader Danny Zuko and Susan McFadden as the girl for whom he falls but cannot pick up, display the singing and acting charisma required to galvanise this almost plotless musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Gilmore's production, with neon-lit, basic sets that swing from high school to burger palace, proves no match for his 1993 production on which this is closely modelled … The outstanding cast member Jayde Westaby makes (boy-grabbing Rizzo) first hard-edged and then vulnerable in her finely delivered song, ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ … Arlene Phillips' choreography had such sexy gusto in 1993. Now the dancing tends to be careful rather than dynamic … Bayne … looks a neat dancer but not much of a gang leader. He makes little of Zuko's awkwardness in love, even when revealing his heart in song. McFadden's Sandy reveals a shrill singing voice and her attempts to play prim make her look elderly-confused … Is it not high time producers found real stars for musicals again?”
- by Tom Atkins