Writer: Mark Jones &Guy Unsworth
Director: Guy Unsworth
Reviewer: Matthew Nichols
Given the choice between watching the film Grease (1978) or its sequel, Grease 2 (1982), I would plump for the second one on any day of the week. It has a genuinely fantastic and varied score, a pouting Michelle Pfeiffer on her way to superstardom, and turns the tables on the first film as an early exponent of girl power. Sure, it’s got a very wooden Maxwell Caulfield in the lead, some terrible haircuts, and some “interesting” dialogue, but it’s so much fun. I always thought I was alone in this. Apparently not. The sequel has built up an enormous cult following since its release, fans committing its dialogue and songs to memory, and now – following a sellout one-nighter at the Lyric in January – it’s back at the Duchess for a week, in all its leathery glory. Cool Rider is a concert staging of the most unfairly maligned of musical sequels, and it is the most fun that you could possibly have in a West End theatre.
It’s 1961, and Stephanie Zinone (Ashleigh Gray), effortlessly cool leader of the Pink Ladies, has had enough of making out with T-Bird leader Johnny Nogerelli (Stewart Clarke). She has a yearning for something more, as does new English student Michael Carrington (Aaron Sidwell), who soon realises that he’s going to have to become something of a cool rider if he’s going to score tonight, and find his girl for all seasons.
The fact is that hardcore fans, in seeing their favourite show realised live on stage, would have been happy for a slapdash sing-through of the main songs from the movie. What this show actually delivers is so much more than that; a cunningly contrived and artfully directed full-pelt concert version which celebrates and sends up its iconic source material. All of those shows that engineer a “standing ovation” each night? Forget it. The crowd went absolutely wild at this one and leapt to their feet. I’ve never heard an audience respond to a show like this. Guy Unsworth’s direction and Matt Krzan’s phenomenal choreography are hilariously creative, and bring the show to life with wit, style and panache. Sure, fans will be delighted, but if you’re uninitiated and looking for a good night out, this scream of a show is absolutely it. Quite frankly, it’s better than at least half of the recent Olivier shortlist for Best Musical.
Perhaps the real star of the show here is Lee Freeman’s superb work on the musical arrangements, and the on-stage band. Creating these new orchestrations from scratch, they expose all the brilliant writing in the show, and the cast sing the life out of the material. Cool Rider, Reproduction and We’ll Be Together are the standouts, but there isn’t a duff card in the pack. Ashleigh Gray is a full-voiced Stephanie, and Aaron Sidwell (struck down with the lurgy, and having his singing hilariously covered from the wings) strikes precisely the right note as the goofy lead. He’s a bona fide leading man and needs a show that does his talent justice. Elsewhere, there’s hardly a foot put wrong. Niki Evans is marvellously chesty and pouty as the lacquered Ms Mason, and Joshua Dowen and Luke Fetherston are a riot as the randiest boys in school.
Will it have a life beyond this one-week engagement? Let’s hope so. For sheer unbridled fun, for inspired lunacy, and for the best night out you could hope to have in a theatre, Cool Rider is a triumph and delivers in spades. Bonkers, bouncy and brilliant, it’s a real treat.
Reviewed on 19th April 2014