While “Grease,” the touring version of the recently closed Broadway revival, lacks the inspiration and emotional sincerity needed to be more than merely peppy and puerile, it does come alive from a sheer kitsch perspective when Taylor Hicks of “American Idol” fame emerges from a giant ice cream cone to sing “Beauty School Dropout.” In fact, the biggest laugh of the evening comes when the flirtatious Frenchy twirls Mr. Hicks’ exposed chest hair and purrs, “I voooted for you.”
The line, delivered deliciously by standout Kate Morgan Chadwick, has layers of significance beyond a single moment of self-conscious humor, since this “Grease,” directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, was originally birthed on the NBC reality show “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” in which the television audience selected the previously unknown Max Crumm and Laura Osnes to become Rialto headliners in the revival.
So the first important fact to remember about this tour is that Max and Laura are not in it.
Yes, the performers swearing in as this Danny and Sandy from Illinois, Eric Schneider and Emily Padgett, were appointed and not elected. They deliver perfectly capable performances, singing and dancing with plenty of polish. But, like much else in this show, they don’t express a lot in the way of true personality.
Schneider (“Jersey Boys,” “Altar Boyz”) has a full set of performance gifts, but while he possesses Crumm’s youthfulness, he doesn’t have the natural slacker mentality that made the aud’s selection fairly interesting.
And Padgett is full on the prototypical Sandy, blonde and totally believable as the good girl. Her transformation at the end into the updated let’s-get-it-on bombshell, in fact, is so complete it almost seems Schneider’s Danny recognizes her too quickly.
Like both Osnes and Crumm, this cast has a fundamentally squeaky clean, heartland aura, emanating innocence even when accessorized with leather jackets or big hair. And perhaps the casting was partially the inspiration for Marshall to create her colorful, crisp, comicbook inspired take on the show. It looks good, it sounds OK, but it’s also both literally (in terms of the sets) and figuratively (in terms of the characterizations) two dimensional.
The ensemble boasts plenty of chops, particularly an ability to capture the melodic elements of the songs. And they do their best to amp up the comedy. But, the little love stories that drive the plot have no dramatic force whatsoever. All the scenes have the same energy, the emotions are all plastic, and the characterizations, purely generic.
This is where Hicks separates himself, creating his own little show-within-a-show, lifting us out of the manufactured quality of the production to enjoy a few moments of an over-the-top oddness that’s decidedly individual. Yes, he delivers on pre-ordained expectations — he even plays the harmonica and dances, as Simon Cowell described it, like he’s a father at a party trying to embarrass his kids.
But, to his credit and to the audience’s enjoyment, nobody else could be this Teen Angel, and there’s no point in even trying to compare him to Frankie Avalon.