13 November 2023
Masquerade-Manoel Theatre production gives audience the one musical they want
The Times of Malta - André Delicata - Monday November 13th 2023
For a musical to be truly well-loved and successful, it must have the power to take hold of an audience’s enthusiasm and run with it. A classic musical does this while standing the test of time.
Its specific historical setting captures the spirit of its era but doesn’t fossilise it – on the other hand, it pays tribute to it and puts it on display as a perfect time-slice of exuberant song and dance, striking the right balance between nostalgia and theatrical dynamics.
Grease is precisely one of these rare musicals which is so very hard to do because it is so very well-known and much loved. Botch it, and you’ve lost your audience; ace it, and you have their captive attention for good.
Masquerade and the Manoel Theatre’s co-production of Grease, staged at the Manoel Theatre over the past two weeks, was a perfect example of how things should be done right.
With director Anthony Bezzina at its helm, this much-anticipated show played to a packed house showing their appreciation throughout the production. What Bezzina and Masquerade specialise in is technical accuracy and military execution. This production paid particular attention to song and dance numbers, with Valerie Burke’s exceptional choreography complementing Kris Spiteri’s sharp musical direction.
Costume and set design, in the capable hands of Simona Mamo and Romualdo Moretti respectively, made the styling work for the talented cast.
Bezzina and Marvic Sultana’s lighting design completed the staging, with the ’50s greaser vibe, typical high school stereotypes and teenage angst, experimentation and their search for love, coming through incredibly well.
When Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s brainchild first took shape in the early ’70s, their book, music and lyrics were rather different to the later 1978 film version, which chopped and changed certain parts to suit the Travolta-Newton John dynamic.
This Masquerade-Manoel production stayed true to the original stage version and was richer, more nuanced and better off for it. Bezzina had a fantastic cast to work with, and the choice of Raphael Pace as Danny Zuko worked incredibly well when paired with Hannah Spiteri as newly arrived ingenue Sandy Dumbrowski.
While Pace lacked some of the swagger that Zuko is meant to embody, his vocals were excellent and improved in strength as the performance progressed. The man can dance incredibly well, and so could the rest of the cast.
The ensemble’s discipline and timing is worth a mention on its own and this added to the show’s excellent pace. While Spiteri’s acting was still rather green, her vocals were spot on too, and the two main characters made a very likeable and credible Danny-Sandy duo whose innocence and experience made for a well-matched pairing. Their renditions of Sandy and Hopelessly Devoted to You were just the right side of romantic.
The energy the Pink Ladies and the Burger Palace Boys had was terrific – yes that’s right, they’re not the T Birds here – that was changed for the film, the original show’s group of greasers had a different name and was much more balanced in terms of the plot and musical numbers assigned to them.
I particularly enjoyed the very mature and polished performances given by Jasmine Farrugia as Betty Rizzo and Michaela Galea as Marty – theirs was a sultry and raw interpretation which brought out their grittier characters – singing There Are Worse Things I Could Do and Freddy my Love respectively, these two shone brightly.
Countering Rizzo, Gianluca Mifsud’s Kenickie was on fire, and his version of Greased Lightening was truly electrifying. This was another scene where the ensemble shone, and along with other favourites like Summer Nights, Born to Hand Jive and You’re the One that I Want, was not only well-received by an enthusiastic toe-tapping audience, but gave the production the vigour it deserved.
Karl Bartolo’s rough and tough Sonny counterbalanced Ryan Grech’s mellow-voiced Doody, whose rendition of Those Magic Changes was heartfelt, simple and incredibly pleasant to see develop. Meanwhile, Nerdy “squares” like Sean Borg’s Eugene and Hannah Gatt’s Patty Simcox, made for great anti-rebels. Gatt was particularly enjoyable in her role as the overly annoying Patty who kept trying to draw Danny’s attention, with very little luck.
Of the couple pairings, I enjoyed Sean Azzopardi’s hyper Roger and his developing love interest for Lisa Baldacchino’s least cool Pink Lady, Jan, the most. Azzopardi’s vocals were powerful and controlled and his adherence to Burke’s choreography meant that his interactions with Baldacchino’s very likeable Jan, as well as his routines with the boys were polished and strong.
In fact, when the greasers danced together, their pace was almost frenetic. It was a pity that American accents faltered across the board, bar Farrugia’s Rizzo and Charlotte Formosa’s Frenchy, who both sustained their character’s accents throughout; other than this, the cast’s characterisation could not have been better.
Formosa had her work cut out for her as one of the most likeable and relatable Pink Ladies. Befriending Sandy first, she is the one who is always ready to listen, and when Jason Scerri, who played Vince Fontaine and Teen Angel, sang Beauty School Dropout, the audience was clearly on her side.
Scerri’s Fontaine and Teen Angel made for a good throwback to the radio DJs and crooners so popular in the ’50s and added to the vibe that the staging gave this production.
Grease has, in fact, lived up to its name and reputation in this production and was an incredibly enjoyable night out. The rousing standing ovation following the finale with a blast of an encore had everybody on their feet, dancing to the songs that still create cross-generational magic.