The one that she wants

TOM CARDY
Last updated 05:00 17/07/2014
Grease the show

GREASE LIGHTNING: Danny and his crew. Danny, played in the film by John Travolta, is being portrayed by Walon Edwards.

Lyndee Jane Rutherford
Lyndee Jane Rutherford: "I had the record and I played it to death."

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Stage and Theatre

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Back when Wellington's Lyndee-Jane Rutherford was about eight years old, Grease the movie was out and the soundtrack album and singles were at the top of the New Zealand charts, including You're the One That I Want at No 1 for four weeks.

The only problem for Rutherford was that she was too young to see the film.

"I had the record and I played it to death. I had my favs and I had the ones I would skip.

"I remember crying in my bed because there was a documentary on television about Grease. My mum must have felt terrible, so she actually got me up out of bed and I managed to watch the second half."

Rutherford did eventually get to see the film, starring John Travolta as high school "greaser" Danny and Olivia Newton-John as Sandy, which for many people was their first introduction to the musical.

Now Rutherford, after 21 years as an actor and director in theatre and television, is directing the stage version of Grease for Wellington Musical Theatre. Not only is it Rutherford's biggest musical - and her first in the canon of Broadway and West End hits - but with more than 50 in the cast, the single biggest live show of her career.

It was Wellington Musical Theatre who approached Rutherford to direct. "How thrilled was I and how thrilled am I," jokes Rutherford. "I directed [off-Broadway musical] Zombie Prom a couple of years ago at Whitireia and I had such an amazing time. Michael Highsted [business manager] of Wellington Musical Theatre did see that. But Grease is the most ‘official' musical. When people think of musicals they think of things like Grease and Phantom of the Opera."

Rutherford hasn't seen Grease on stage before, but is aware of the history. Some of it will surprise people. It includes the fact that Grease premiered in Chicago in an experimental theatre, which used to be a tram shed, in 1971. The cast were all amateurs and the audience had to sit on newspapers.

Travolta was in a national tour of Grease when he was 17, before his television and film career, including Saturday Night Fever which made him a star the year before the movie Grease.

Some of the songs, including You're the One That I Want and Grease, by The Bee Gees' Barry Gibb, weren't part of the original stage show and were written specifically for the film. This has also happened in other film adaptations of stage musicals, including Jesus Christ Superstar.

Rutherford says her Grease incorporates the film's hit songs, but in other ways reflects the differences in the stage show to the film version. There are the same core characters, including Waylon Edwards as Danny, Awhimai Fraser as Sandy, Ainslie Allen as tough girl Rizzo and Flora Lloyd as Frenchy, but it's not a carbon copy of the film.

"In the movie Sandy is Australian because Olivia Newton-John is Australian. She's not [Australian] in the musical. And Sandy's got a little bit more guts in the musical, which I really like. She's more up to giving to Rizzo a little bit more.

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"So that's been really fun and that's been a really positive and awesome and energetic component in the show. But we honour the film. You can't not. But we have a few musical surprises in there as well," says Rutherford.

OVER the show's three-month rehearsal period she's been helped by Grease's musical director Michael Nicholas Williams and choreographer Leigh Evans. Rutherford has worked with both on other shows, including Zombie Prom with Williams and The ImpoSTAR with Evans. But it was still a learning experience dealing with something the scale of Grease.

"We are a team and we work together really well. We feed off each other and Michael also has an amazing knowledge of pop culture.

"And this is my first time in the Opera House and - oh, my goodness - my mind is blown with how much I've learned and how much my knowledge has grown. It freaks me out just how much I have learnt."

It's been the same in working with the cast, which Rutherford says, is largely young, some still at high school. "It is about spending time with people and I'm a firm believer in that. People are slowly but surely getting there and it's really fulfilling to see how people have grown. It's amazing. People have been able to push themselves and learn. Part of me wishes I'd actually recorded them on the first day, they have done such an amazing job."

For Rutherford some of the "magic moments" in rehearsals have been seeing the cast nail a song. It really hit her this week when the cast were able to rehearse on the Opera House stage. "They just went up a notch as soon as they got up on stage. They do what you ask them to do and it was awesome."

Not surprisingly, Rutherford is keen to direct another large-scale musical and it's made her more aware of her strengths as a director. "I work really well with people. I'm really patient and I put the work in and so when I'm working with a big cast like this, I really enjoy seeing that development."

Nor is she about to be musical-free after Grease. Rutherford will return to acting with a role in the musical Dead Tragic - written and directed by Williams - at Circa Theatre in November.

"I've seen it twice at Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North in two different productions. I just sat in the audience wishing I was in it because it was so hilarious. "All of a sudden I'm in it." 

 Grease is at Wellington's Opera House until July 26. 

- The Dominion Post

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