Let's just get it out of the way - American Idol star Taylor Hicks delivers a perfectly acceptable performance as Teen Angel in the touring production of Grease that just hand-jived its way into the Hippodrome Theatre.
It's true that Hicks hams it up so much, he should be served with a jar of mustard. He turns his back to the audience and wiggles his butt, he rolls his eyes skyward like one of Raphael's winged cherubs, and he even gets off a few licks on his harmonica.
But subtlety isn't necessarily an asset in performing a role as inherently kitsch as Teen Angel. And Hicks' fans in the audience lapped up his performance, cheering for their idol far more loudly than they did for the show's putative stars.
The 32-year-old Silver Fox became famous by winning the fifth season of Idol in 2006. For those fans yearning to catch their hero up close, there are two important rules to follow:
See Grease this week. Hicks is appearing at the Hippodrome only through Sunday; next week, understudies will take over.
Finally, do not, repeat, do not, leave during the curtain call. After the actors walk off the stage, Hicks returns to perform an encore from his soon-to-be released album. He seems more relaxed in concert mode, and his charm is more unforced.
The rest of the actors also deliver perfectly acceptable performances. (Yes, members of the Soul Patrol, there are other people on stage.)
Having said that, Grease is what it is. Set in the 1950s at the fictitious Rydell High School, the musical recounts the romance between goody-two-shoes Sandy Dumbroski and bad boy Danny Zuko, leader of the T-Birds.
Beneath its surface amiability and hummable melodies, I've always been bothered by the show's underlying sexism. Sandy finds peer acceptance and wins true love only by abandoning her full skirts and bobby socks and transforming herself into the epitome of male fantasies.
Whatever happened to "to thine own self be true"?
The musical has been around since 1971. Most recently, it was on Broadway, where the two leads were cast by votes from viewers of the NBC reality show, Grease: You're The One That I Want. The winners, Laura Osnos and Max Croom, did not join the national tour.
Instead, Sandy is played by Emily Padgett, who looks the part and possesses a lovely soprano. Eric Schneider softens the edges on Danny, playing down that character's chauvinism and endowing him with an endearing awkwardness.
The cast includes one contestant from the reality show: Allie Schulz, an understudy in the Broadway production. On the tour, she plays Rizzo, who rules her girl gang, the Pink Ladies, with an iron whip.
Schulz has a natural sparkle and powerhouse vocals - but a limited emotional range, which becomes most apparent in Rizzo's big scene, when the character has a pregnancy scare.
One nit: The sound mix is off for the big production numbers (though, oddly, not for the more intimate solos) and the orchestra drowns out the singers. The audience doesn't so much hear the lyrics to "We Go Together" or to the title song as much as it remembers them.
Singing awards for the show go to two minor members of Zuko's gang: Will Blum as Roger ("Mooning") and Brian Crum as Doody ("Those Magic Changes"). The latter even has a number in which he imagines himself as a rock star surrounded by adoring fans - not unlike American Idol.
Crum and Blum are relative unknowns, just as Hicks himself was a few years ago. If his campy rendition of Teen Angel brings in new audience members and exposes them to the soaring vocals of other performers, what in the world is wrong with that?
if you go
Grease runs through Feb. 15 at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22-$67. Call 410-547-7328 or go to france-merrickpac.com.
Read an interview with Taylor Hicks PG 2