Cool Rider – Duchess Theatre

Mark Benton and Niki Evans in COOL RIDER. Photo Credit Pamela Raith

Mark Benton and Niki Evans in Cool Rider at the Duchess Theatre, London. Picture: Pamela Raith

Cool Rider continues at the Duchess Theatre, London until 19 April.

The idea for Cool Rider stems from one of the most precarious concepts in film or theatre history – the musical sequel. With the huge success of the film adaptation of Grease, Paramount Pictures immediately set about commissioning a series of sequels. The first is set in 1961, two years after Danny and Sandy have flown off in Greased Lightning and sees a new set of senior high school students ruling the roost. Unfortunately, Grease 2 was considered a resounding flop and the idea of any further sequels from Paramount were shelved.

Grease 2, however, has surreptitiously gained a large cult following over the last 30 years. Its catchy score written by various composers and lyricists, which seemed so cheesy in 1982, has a delightfully retrospective appeal. The story – a reversal of the original bad-boy meets good-girl theme of Grease – may have been trying too hard, but at least it was entertaining and introduced the world to the undoubtable charms of Michelle Pfeiffer as leader of the Pink Ladies, Stephanie Zinone.

Cool Rider is a celebration of the movie Grease 2. A lively, choreographed concert featuring a full band, an energetic cast and an adapted narrative based on the movie screenplay. On paper, it’s a bizarre idea, but the producer’s commitment to the project coupled with an accomplished team of creatives make Cool Rider one hell of an entertaining evening.

Musical director Lee Freeman has adapted the fairly tame score into something that bursts with excitement from the outset. The music and lyrics may not be emotionally challenging, but the songs are enormous fun, and judging by the audience on press night, they have a host of fans familiar with all the words. Director Guy Unsworth, along with Mark Jones have adapted the screenplay lovingly, paying homage to both the original narrative and the foibles of movie staging. The title number, for instance, sees Ashleigh Gray’s Stephanie belting out ‘Cool Rider’ from the top of a step ladder – for no discernible reason except that’s how it happened in the movie.

The young company embraces the concept lovingly and commits fully to the exuberance of the storyline and its quirky characters. Hannah Levane as Paulette, Luke Featherstone as Goose and Stewart Clarke as bad-boy Johnny may be fairly two-dimensional characters, but they are played with the utmost sincerity. The adult characters are condensed into two roles for the purposes of this concert with X Factor’s Niki Evans vamping her way through the role of Ms Mason, and Strictly’s Mark Benton evidently relishing the opportunity to belt out one of the hits of the evening – ‘Reproduction’ – to the delight of the fans.

The central love story between Aaron Sidwell’s Michael and Gray’s Stephanie is pure Hollywood magic brought to life on stage. It may be a chemistry founded in parody, but the spark between the two actors electrifies the audience, despite the concert format, and gives the story its heart.

With Matt Krzan’s urgent choreography, Christopher Wilmer’s costumes and Rick Woska’s Nun providing many of the special effects (I really need to re-visit the movie!), Cool Rider is likely to be the most staged concert you have ever experienced. The question is, could Cool Rider ever become a fully-fledged stage musical? To be honest it probably could, but in adapting it so, you may loose much of the charm that makes this production so thoroughly entertaining.

Paul Vale

Readers may also be interested in:

Aaron Sidwell on being a Cool RiderInterview

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