The fact that "Grease" has run eight years so far on Broadway and has generated movie and television spinoffs ad nauseum qualifies it as a cultural phenomenon. But, as shown by the road-show version now playing at Washington's Warner Theater, an artistic phenomenon it is not.
The cast headed by Rex Smith cannot be much faulted, except for a tendency to mumble or swallow lyrics. If somebody made me get up in front of God and everybody and sing such songs I'd mumble and swallow, too; they enter the ear and pass out of the mind like grass through a goose.
It's not just the score that's full of false notes. The characters do not look, behave or speak in period for the '50s. The background, aspirations and clique of almost any kid in any school could be read at a glance in that button-down, buckle-butt era. The essence of spoof or parody lies not in the exaggeration but in the underlying truth; the roles in "Grease" are cardboard cutouts from several decades of high-school yearbooks, pasted together in no particular order toward no discernible end. As if to emphasize this ineptness, the same player will appear as Tough Tessie, Susie Sweet, Rhonda Roundheels and Sally Chic in successive scenes. Sometimes in the same scene.
The energy and ability of the cast could conceivably overcome the theatrical illiteracy of the thing were it not for the pointless profanity and vulgarity. So engaging are the players that now and then I teetered on the brink of suspending disbelief. Each time I was driven back by some gratuitously gross line or bit of business. It made me sorry we had brought our teenage daughters, not because they didn't already know all the words but because it undermined all my efforts to teach them how to use profanity effectively.
A musical about the big-beat '50s ought to set one's toes to tapping. "Grease" got mine going, the same way they used to when I was waiting for the bell in study hall.