IF a picture paints a thousand words, then look at the one above. It captures the essence of NETheatre York.
That stage looks busy, very busy, bursting with happy faces, everyone revelling in performing and being in a group whose love of entertaining York audiences is writ large in every buoyant show. Such is the sugar rush of a Steve Tearle production – he has become the P T Barnum of York – that the impact is almost giddying. No wonder the ‘E’ in NETheatre stands for ‘exciting’.
‘Excitable’ would be true too, maybe even over-excitable, in that desire to delight, with the opening night in too much of a rush at the start amid a few technical gremlins. No doubt those theatrical E numbers will settle down, but the sound balance with so many performers on stage – a cast of 60 – always will be a challenge.
Tearle has found a formula that works at the box office, one that appeals to family, friends and stalwart supporters alike. If you build a production with a big cast, giving opportunities to young performers to cut their stage teeth, as well helping nascent talents to bloom and calling on a stock of regulars, they will come. In big numbers.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and the Saturday matinee have sold out already; Thursday and Saturday night are down to the last few tickets (box office, 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk).
Another factor is at play here: Grease, in a word. Everyone loves Grease, just as everyone loves Abba and Queen, don’t they. Don’t they?! That film, those iconic John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John performances, those songs, are embedded in more than one generation, reflected in the wide age range attending on Tuesday.
Sensibly, NETheatre York (the latest name for NE Musicals York) applied for the extra rights to be allowed to use the opening title song, You’re The One That I Want, Sandy and Hopelessly Devoted To You from the 1978 movie. Out go Drive In Movie, All Choked Up and It’s Raining On Prom Night. In come four songs that all made the UK top three, the John and Olivia duet topping the charts for nine weeks.
Tearle likes a night at the theatre to be a full experience for the audience from the moment of arrival, in this case running a glitter station for sparkling facial adornments. Aptly, your reviewer’s programme sparkled on the Creative Team page, from stray glitter particles as it turned out.
Scott Kendrew, in de rigueur spangly trousers, opens the show, fulfilling his dream to sing a solo song in a musical, performing Grease in the guise of Frankie Valli with an all-American swagger. Soon the stage is populated by the T-Birds greaser gang, the Pink Ladies, more and more Rydell High School pupils and the new, young 1959 intake, under the charge of Perri Ann Barley’s indefatigable head teacher Miss Lynch.
It does provide a wow factor, such a full stage, but this staging comes with complications. The central focus of a scene is not always clear amid so many bodies; voices become muffled in dialogue on one occasion when two performers move beyond the stage apron into the auditorium; peripheral movement sometimes distracts from the principals, Maia Beatrice’s college newcomer Sandy Dumbrowski is too crowded in by the ensemble in that all-important Summer Nights duet with Finley Butler’s Danny Zuko.
The traffic is less heavy, indeed clear, for the confessional, heartfelt solo numbers, emphasising the song and its delivery, whether Butler’s Danny in Sandy; Beatrice’s Sandy in Hopelessly Devoted To You or, best of all, the stand-out Melissa Boyd’s cynical tough cookie Rizzo in There Are Worse Things (I Could Do).
Rizzo is her dream role and it shows. Sparks fly in the company of Calum Davis’s cocksure Kenickie, who revels in his big number, Greased Lightnin, the peak of Ellie Roberts’s choreography too.
University of Hull theatre student Butler and Cleethorpes pantomime star Beatrice first performed together in York College days, re-sparking that chemistry as strutting Danny and a grittier-than-usual Sandy, culminating in the pent-up romantic release of You’re The One That I Want.
Broad humour courses through the somewhat graphic performances of T-Birds Roger (Flynn Coultous in his NETheatre debut), Sonny (Kristian Barley) and Doody (guitar-playing Matthew Clarke). Juliette Brenot’s Frenchy, Mo Kinnes’s Jan and Erin Greenley’s Marty, leader Rizzo’s fellow Pink Ladies, are not content to stay in the background.
Sam Richardson and Chloe Drake play the nerdy Eugene and goody-goody/irritating cheerleader Patty respectively with admirable enthusiasm for such uncool roles. Ellie Roberts’s Cha-Cha and Kit Stroud’s radio jock Vince Fontaine make the most of their cameos.
Musical director Scott Phillips pops out of the pit to transform into band leader Johnny Casino. Director/producer/co-choreographer Steve Tearle turns into Las Vegas Elvis – if Elvis had made it to his silver sixties – for the Teen Angel set-piece, Beauty School Dropout, all in white, tongue in cheek, lights flickering in his cape.
Phillips leads his band – two tenor sax, guitars, bass and drums – from the keyboards with exuberance and a dash of jazz swing. The ensemble, whether speeding through the aisles or giving their all in the routines, relishes every scene.
Some might want Tearle’s Grease to be a little calmer, less frenetic, to let scenes breathe, but just as the show’s Grease car sign was made and sent from China in only two weeks, so this Grease works flat out to deliver its thrills, right down to Phillips’s Grease Mega-Mix party finale, everyone up on their feet busting their John and Olivia moves.
NETheatre York presents Grease The Musical, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office for last few tickets: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatreyork.co.uk