Finding new ways to copy “American Idol” isn’t as easy as it appears, and NBC — after summer success with “America’s Got Talent” — might have another marketable concept in this BBC import, an elimination tourney casting leads for a Broadway revival of “Grease.” Since practically every American has either seen the movie or tried out for one of these roles in high school, the recognizable songs make for a reasonably comforting concept. If only the format didn’t so slavishly adhere to “Idol’s” template, down to British producer David Ian seeming to channel Simon Cowell by way of Malcolm McDowell.
“Grease” co-creator Jim Jacobs and director Kathleen Marshall join Ian in screening the contestants, and the show makes clear from the get-go that it will follow “Idol’s” script, when a perfect, perky Sandy contestant tiptoes in, immediately followed by someone who is overweight, partially deaf and clearly there to be pitied and/or ridiculed. And thus the bookends are set.
NBC indulges in a bit of synergy by tapping “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush to impersonate Ryan Seacrest, augmented by equally bubbly Brit Denise Van Outen. Watching Bush console those who don’t make the cut and exult with those who do, it’s hard not to wish that Danny Zuko and the “Grease” gang would show up and shove him in a locker.
Sunday’s 90-minute opener rifles through auditions in L.A. and Chicago, gradually whittling down the pool to 50 potential Sandys and Dannys who will attend “Grease Academy” before naming a dozen finalists, with viewers choosing the winner. It’s all loosely inspired by a similar competition the BBC staged last year in connection with “The Sound of Music” using the too-cute-for-America title “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” and featuring musical impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The main deviation from “Idol” in “Grease” is that it will require, as Bush says, a “true triple threat,” capable of not only singing but acting and dancing as well. Still, the beats here are all woefully familiar, from the tears that greet rejection and being told, as Ian does in somewhat unwieldy fashion, “You’re the one that we want for ‘Grease Academy.’ ”
One wrinkle, however, does prove entirely unconvincing — namely, the idea that the producers are sweating it out over finding the right performers. They are, rather, simply basking in the hours of free publicity the program will generate to help their show get up and running.
NBC has a big void to fill Sundays with pro football sidelined for eight months, and the revised reality-heavy lineup sounds like as logical a method as any to try staying competitive without throwing a bunch of new dramas to the slaughter. It’s only too bad that the net’s latest talent show reflects about as much creativity, frankly, as the underlying notion of reviving “Grease” yet again for Broadway.