Editorial Review

Slick 'Idol' stars are best parts of 'Grease' at National Theatre

By Nelson Pressley
Friday, February 12, 2010

Cancellations have been the norm this week, but Washington's latest polar express hasn't snowed out everything. On Tuesday night the show went on at the National Theatre, where the touring version of "Grease" plows Broadway and "American Idol" into an amiable mash-up.

You may remember this "Grease" as the product of "You're the One That I Want," a 2007 NBC reality show of "Idol"-style auditions searching for the next Sandy Dumbrowski and Danny Zuko (the on-and-off lovebirds of the musical's Rydell High).

The TV show was a dud, the Broadway production tanked critically, and the triumphant Sandy-Danny couple have moved on (in the case of Laura Osnes, the Sandy victor, to Broadway's "South Pacific").

But before the musical's year-plus run ended in New York, it became a haven for "Idol" stars Taylor Hicks and Ace Young. They are the charmers-in-chief of this otherwise flat "Grease," with Young offering himself as an utterly winsome Danny and Hicks having a ball playing . . . ladies and gentlemen, Taylor Hicks!

Actually, he plays the Teen Angel, but that role is basically a campy second-act cameo that allows some dreamy pop figure to croon "Beauty School Dropout." It lets Hicks be Hicks, but instead of facing judges and at-home voters, he's popping out of a giant ice cream cone over the local burger stand and offering sober counsel via corny serenade.

He's too cute, he hams it up, and he sings smashingly; in other words, he's exactly as remembered and perfect for this fleeting, self-consciously star-dusted part.

Young is a less easy fit as the tough guy Danny, but who cares? (It's "Grease," for Pete's sake.) His grin is still big and goofy, and the money part of his voice is still the soft, sweet top. There's a moment in Danny's ballad "Sandy" that's made for a Broadway belt, but that's not what Young does. Instead, he nails the finish with a high note that's like an adolescent's valentine, no doubt pleasing the fans in the crowd who occasionally couldn't resist saying, "All right, Ace!"

Bless these Idols, then, because otherwise director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall's production would be hard to take. Marshall's an established pro, so it's not a disaster; the show zips along and looks terrific at times, thanks to the colorful and comparatively tasteful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. But too often this "Grease" serves up the kind of desperate, pushy performances that give Broadway an almost vulgar name.

Then again, "Grease" is a vulgar, pushy show -- but fun, if done in the right spirit. Marshall nearly corrals the antsy energy of the 1950s teens in her lively choreography, but more of the alluringly nuanced moves that are too often kept in the background would be welcome (more cool shoulder rolls and angled hips, that is, and maybe fewer pogo leaps and pelvic thrusts with spanking motions).

The laughs are scarce, and that's the thing: Clearly, everyone can sing and dance, including Lauren Ashley Zakrin as Sandy. Lord, she does hit some notes in "Hopelessly Devoted to You" -- this stage version obtained the rights to the movie's great songs -- yet like many an "Idol" performance, it sounds insincere.

That's never a problem for Hicks, who raced back onstage after the curtain call to sing "Seven Mile Breakdown" from his 2009 album "The Distance." The musicians were already out of the orchestra pit, but of course there are ways around that. With the sound of shuffling drums and slide guitars underneath him, Hicks drove the country power ballad home and reminded the possibly befuddled crowd why they had braved the storm.

"Thanks for coming to 'Grease,' " he called out. With a wave and grin, he was gone.

Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Set, Derek McLane; lights, Ken Posner; sound design, Brian Ronan. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. About 2 1/2 hours.