Two years into his stewardship at Curve, artistic director Nikolai Foster must by now have silenced any doubters in the city (there were a few), worried that Leicester’s reputation for a crackling good musical would somehow be lost with the departure of previous incumbent Paul Kerryson.
No such worries on the evidence of the latest production, Grease, an assured and hugely entertaining follow-up to Foster’s Legally Blonde earlier this year. Punchy and sometimes humorous choreography (Nick Winston) and a strikingly good design (Colin Richmond) get us in the mood. Richmond’s work seamlessly shifts from high school gym to burger bar in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps not the most Christmassy of er – Christmas – productions but even so, Foster along with a talented cast and a clever technical team do justice to Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1972 musical written as a love letter to their Chicago upbringing.
It is late summer 1959 and Rydell High School is the familiar setting for a show that is as much about the 'invention' of the American teenager as it is a romance between Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski.
While John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s 1978 movie version stays with us mostly for its brilliant soundtrack (let’s face it: they were NOT teenagers when they made it, so we suspend our disbelief), Foster’s production feels like the real thing, helped enormously by strong characterisation and convincing accents. It reminds us that post-war teenagers were making it up as they went along. Or just making out, if they were lucky. Cool cars, drive-in movies and rock 'n' roll records help to shape the New Teenager whose lives are framed by the rules designed by parents, police, schoolteachers and politicians.
'We're wanted by the FBI for hanging around street corners and doing nothing,' says one of the 'greaser' gang from the Burger Palace Boys while others worry that 'Coke rots your teeth'.
What emerges though, loud and clear, in this colourful, energetic show is the possibility to challenge and even break the rules. Music and dance gives them the confidence to try. When the leather-clad Sandy (Jessica Paul) tells Danny Zuko (Dex Lee) that "You’re The One That I Want", his jaw is practically on the floor; she may be sexy now but it doesn’t make her cheap.
In a production that takes a quarter of an hour or so to get into its stride, Danny and Sandy’s "Summer Nights" settles any nerves for a cast that doesn’t look back.
Lee has the more difficult task, mixing cocky bravado with little-boy-lost, yet he excels in the role, best demonstrated by his physicality and a smart choice to stay well clear of the vocal ticks used so memorably on film by Travolta.
Paul is a real find as new girl in class, Sandy. The word is she pipped several better known actresses to the part and it is easy to see why. Her bewilderment at Danny’s dismissiveness towards her is unexpectedly moving while her singing voice – centre stage on "Hopelessly Devoted To You" – is (and ONJ fans, look away now) perfection.
But then this is a top-notch cast all-round. Djalenga Scott‘s Rizzo is such a classy performance, and there is great work too from Sophie Camble (Patty – a masterclass in coming on too strong) and Patrick Harper as Teen Angel.
Darren Bennett, becoming a Curve favourite, is deliciously funny as Vince Fontaine. It is especially his work at the start of the second act that lifts the energy of all concerned with an exhausting song-and-dance routine; he is not so much stealing the show as pointing a gun to its head as he carries it away.
Beautifully staged and sung, Grease is most certainly the word.
Grease runs at Leicester Curve until 21 January.