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Reviewed: Grease at The Little Theatre

Wigston Amateur Operatic Society take a trip back to the 1950s.

The cast of Grease perform the iconic "Greased Lightning". Photo by Sarah Varnam.
The cast of Grease perform the iconic 'Greased Lightning'. Photo by Sarah Varnam.

Grease is one of those musicals that everyone knows. Decades of the 'Grease Megamix' gracing school discos and the "cheese room" of any decent night club means that everyone knows when they're supposed to sigh during 'Summer Nights' and the arm-ography for 'Greased Lightning'.

Grease is an icon of musical theatre. Perhaps the icon. It's the musical that people who don't like musicals like.

It's messaging though is also not something I'm fully on board with: "Ladies! Change everything about yourself in order to win your man's affections!" On top of that, the script makes some characters quite difficult to like; regularly stealing each other's partners, getting into fights, and belittling anyone who dares to express individuality...

...and yet, it is a fun show. The music is so upbeat that you can't help but find yourself enjoying it.

So, a strong choice for Wigston Amateur Operatic Society (WAOS), a year on from their award-winning production of Ghost: The Musical. The wisdom of the show-selection is highlighted by the sold-out audiences for every night of the run. It's wonderful to see The Little Theatre at capacity, and populated by people dressed up, dancing along, singing along (only in the curtain call, thankfully), and having a great time.

The Burger Palace Boys and The Pink Ladies. Photo by Sarah Varnam.
The Burger Palace Boys and The Pink Ladies. Photo by Sarah Varnam.

Sarah Varnam's direction accounts for a huge cast of 30, while still finding intimate moments that allow the principal actors to show what they can do. To manoeuvre that many performers around The Little Theatre stage requires careful planning, and although it does occasionally feel a bit crowded, nobody ever feels like they're on stage without purpose.

There's also a satisfying blend of the show's established character and new ideas, so it feels like the Grease you remember, but not just re-treading old ground.

Musical Director Kate Bale makes full use of her live band, with the audience immediately transported to 1950s America from the opening notes of 'Grease' (it's the word, have you heard? No? Are you sure? It's got groove... it's got meaning...). They accompany every musical number with comfort, and allow the singers to breathe and perform at a natural pace.

Choreographer Lyd Rushton has done an admirable job – again, co-ordinating a cast of 30 is no small feat – and emphasises her cast's strengths. There's one or two moments where those performing looked to be focused on their dance steps and consequently lost the performance aspect, but I'm the last person who should be criticising anyone who finds choreography challenging; historically, I've had all the grace of a new-born giraffe...

There's many impressive dance routines in this production but I really enjoyed the simplicity to 'Beauty School Drop Out', with the ensemble serving as the perfect foil to David Jackson's Teen Angel.

One of the stand out elements of this production is the use of technology. Technical director Joe Roberts makes use of projection and lighting in a way I don't think I've seen done in any other production at The Little. I'd have to say his work is on par with shows I've seen at professional theatres, and it added so much.

The only two projected elements I didn't love were the colossally large lockers that towered over the cast in front of them (I think you'd be able to move a family of four in to each one) which took me out of the show for a moment. The other was the projection of Danny during Sandy's performance of 'Hopelessly Devoted to You' – a good idea in principle, but it got laughs that didn't feel right during such an emotional ballad.

Speaking of Sandy, Jenna Leigh delivers a charming performance. 'Hopelessly Devoted to You' is beautifully sung, and she certainly channels her inner-Olivia Newton John during 'You're the One that I Want'. She also has good chemistry with Gaz Hunt as Danny – you forget how little time the two characters are actually on stage together, but when they are, you feel the mutual attraction and they feel like a natural pairing.

Jenna Leigh as Sandy. Photo by Sarah Varnam.
Jenna Leigh as Sandy. Photo by Sarah Varnam.

Hunt also did two Travolta-isms that I absolutely loved; the laugh and the walk/strut, both of which made me howl as they were dead on. Neither felt like an impression or caricature – it felt like a teenager trying to act cool. There are some big numbers (and high notes) to sing in Danny's repertoire as well, but Hunt carried them with aplomb and charisma.

Katie Wilson's Rizzo was a stand out for me, especially in the second half. Wilson won the theatre's in-house award for 'Best Supporting Performance in a Musical' last year, and her talent is undeniable. Both 'Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee' and 'There Are Worse Things I Could Do' were highlights of the show.

The Burger Palace Boys (AKA the T-Birds, if you've only seen the movie version) featuring Nick Wilkins (Kenickie), Jay Kenney (Sonny), Jacob Bale (Roger), and Zach Varnam (Doody), appropriately presented their low-life sides. They're loyal to each other – unless a girl is available. Ultimately, they do a good job of highlighting why Danny is the desirable member of their group – as they should. Although, Varnam's portrayal of Doody was also quite sweet – his shyness in the presence of girls being in stark contrast to the rest of the boys.

The Burger Palace Boys. Photo by Sarah Varnam.
The Burger Palace Boys. Photo by Sarah Varnam.

The Pink Ladies, featuring Wilson (Rizzo), Katie Proctor (Marty), Lucy Foreman (Jan) and Emily Woodall (Frenchy), were a very strong quartet, each with unique traits. They all felt like fully-formed, individual characters, and I enjoyed the dynamics between them. I'm sure we'll see more from all four performers in future shows at The Little.

Overall, Grease is fun, and it's magnificent to see The Little Theatre auditorium filled with enthusiastic audiences, and the stage-filled with performers who are loving what they're doing. That's what amateur theatre is about, after all – passion! It's a joy to see!

WAOS's production of Grease: The Musical is at The Little Theatre until Saturday, May 25, 2024. Every show is sold out, but you can call the theatre's box office on 0116 255 1302 to join a waiting list in case any seats should become available.

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May 29

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