Vibrant cast gives energy to Grease

PIP CHRISTMASS
Rob Mills and Gretel Scarlett. Picture: Jeff Busby

WAAPA-trained talent Gretel Scarlett truly is what the performing arts industry refers to as a "triple threat". The Queensland girl who was set to become a classical ballerina before injury saw her return to her first love - singing, acting and dancing - stars as Sandy in the latest musical version of Grease, and she really can do it all.

"Although, the only thing I don't like about playing Sandy is that I don't get to dance all that much," she says. "Mostly I'm dancing from the sidelines."

Scarlett was already enrolled in song and dance classes by the time she was four. She moved to Sydney at 15 to attend the Newtown High School of Performing Arts, before relocating to Perth and graduating from WAAPA with a bagful of awards in 2008. Not long after, she was hitting the boards in Mamma Mia! and Wicked before Grease came calling.

"When I was auditioning for Sandy, Olivia Newton-John was completely not in my mind," she says of the much-loved 1978 film, which also starred John Travolta in the role of Danny Zuko. "Sandy is a strong 1950s woman who is proud to be the 'good girl'. I had to bring that to the audition and I realised I just had to do it my own way. When I got the role, funnily enough, is when I started to feel the pressure."

"The movie really put Australia on the map," adds former Australian Idol finalist Rob Mills, who plays Danny on stage.

"Until then, there had been very few films made outside Australia that actually had Australian characters in them."

Mills has taken a very different trajectory from that of his co-star. After his Idol appearance in 2003, he recorded a pop album before working his way through a series of reality TV shows, from Dancing with the Stars to Celebrity Apprentice Australia. Originally, he didn't think he had what it takes to play Danny, but the show's producers disagreed.

"When I did Grease: The Arena Spectacular a few years back, in the role of Johnny Casino, I met all these really cool musical theatre people and I remember thinking 'What a great world you guys live in'," he says.

"I fell in love with the industry. I worked out that I couldn't necessarily be the Les Mis guy, the classically trained singer, but there's a rock'n'roll strand of musical theatre that I can definitely do. I knew I could be that guy."

I am chatting to Scarlett and Mills towards the end of a long Melbourne run. The night before, they have spirited me away to the 1950s as part of a joyous, pitch-perfect, finely honed show. The energy on stage is high, and the next day, rather than looking or sounding tired, the two leads are bouncing off each other like a comedy duo. Clearly they have a strong rapport.

"I think it's just this show and the fantastic work ethic of this cast," Mills says.

"This is our opportunity to do well, so why wouldn't you put 100 per cent in every night? We might have been performing every night for months but it's usually the audience's first time. You can't

not have a good time with these songs."

"I take a look at all the crew behind the scenes," Scarlett adds.

"They don't necessarily get the recognition that we get. Sometimes I do my show for them, because I know how hard they're working. I have a lot of respect for those guys."

Scarlett and Mills are part of a star-studded cast that includes Bert Newton as DJ Vince Fontaine, Val Lehmann as teacher Miss Lynch, John Paul Young as Johnny Casino, and Todd McKenney as the silver- quiffed Teen Angel.

McKenney throws in a number of sly references to Dancing with the Stars each night; Mills, whom McKenney unceremoniously evicted when he appeared on the celebrity dance show, describes him as "a total card" backstage.

"At the time I thought Todd judged me pretty harshly but yeah, looking back on it, I was pretty bad," Mills guffaws. "But I haven't held it against him."

This version of Grease takes its cues from the original stage script, which was set in 1950s Chicago and was much more gritty than the comparatively family-friendly film.

"Originally Sandy was an American girl from a strict Catholic family," Scarlett explains. "She was never meant to be Australian, but apparently Olivia had trouble with the accent. In the film, they sort of took out the Catholicism and just made her a prim girl with strong morals."

Both Scarlett and Mills agree it is the music that makes Grease and which has been the secret to its longevity. Asked to pick their favourites to sing, Scarlett nominates Hopelessly Devoted to You, while Mills picks out the ensemble piece Greased Lightning.

"The music transcends generations because the melodies are just so catchy," Scarlett says.

"Kids can go and enjoy it for what it is without necessarily understanding some of the more adult stuff that goes on. Parents respond to the more adult themes. And the older generation are taken back to their childhood, the wonderful 1950s clothes and music. There's something in it for everyone."