Sequels in the musical theatre industry are rare, unlike of course in film: after Grease there was indeed Grease 2, a less famous, less successful and less memorable production than its predecessor. Cool Rider bases itself on the lesser of the two, resulting in an exuberant celebration of the 1961 high school class. In this version at the Duchess Theatre, however, the teachers join in the action and, instead of teaching, hold auditions – for what exactly remains obscure, but it really doesn’t matter. Cool Rider is every bit as sexy and exhilarating as the film should have been.
Directed by Guy Unsworth, the show sees a large and capable cast fill the shoes of the quintessential heart-throbs, bad boys and cheerleaders, and of course the winning couple: Ashleigh Gray as the unattainable Stephanie and Aaron Sidwell as British newcomer Michael, who’ll only get the girl if he turns into a bike-riding dude clad entirely in tight leather. The storyline is overly familiar, and it is a good thing this production recognises that. It goes beyond the usual trodden path and offers – often very funny – commentary on the art form and the ridiculousness of the story, and engages with a very enthusiastic audience. The whole thing often feels more like a concert than a musical.
The songs are catchy and performed with gusto; Sidwell especially stands out and it would by no means be an exaggeration to say he is a star. Choreography (by Matt Krzan) is simply a lot of fun and allows a wide variety of styles and personalities to take centre stage. This is in line with the ultra-fast pace with which the story rolls along before our eyes: clearly, enjoyment takes precedence over any narrative profundity.
The show has some minor flaws. I found the use of both standing microphones and headsets confusing; at the moment Stephanie climbs up onto a ladder during her number, a stagehand has to hold it steady – a task marked out for the nun (played by a man) who is seen here and there and gets a lot of the laughs. These flaws however, on second thought, might have been deliberate in an attempt to mimic the shortcomings of the film. In which case, of course, they only add to the fun.
One week in the West End is not long enough. Cool Rider is a refreshing show, the kind we need more of, and incidentally has the capacity to draw new audiences into central London – save Matilda, I haven’t seen such a young audience in a commercial theatre.
Cool Rider is playing at the Duchess Theatre until 19 April. For more information and tickets, see the Cool Rider website.
Photo by Pamela Raith.