“American Idol” Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks headlines, but 2007 Broadway Revival and 2008-09 national tour director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall provides the snap, crackle, and pop in this red-hot rendition of Grease, which opened to a prolonged standing ovation on Tuesday night at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Hicks, who celebrated his 33rd birthday on Oct. 7th in the Bull City, doesn’t even appear until Scene 3 of Act II.
In his one-scene, one-song performance as Teen Angel, Taylor Hicks croons “Beauty School Dropout” — a song of encouragement, but hardly a test of his famous pipes — to the excitable Frenchy (Kate Morgan Chadwick) outside the Burger Palace, but he adds a hot harmonica solo. Then, during the encore segment of the show, Hicks takes the lead on a reprise of “Grease (Is the Word),” and later returns — in full concert regalia — with his guitar and harmonica in hand, to belt out a solo of “Seven Mile Breakdown” from his latest CD, “The Distance.”
Meanwhile, Kathleen Marshall, who has brilliantly directed and choreographed both the Tony Award®-nominated Broadway Revival that closed in January 2009 and the national tour that began in November 2008, adds plenty of pizzazz to the proceedings. Marshall takes a fresh, new approach to this familiar material, which her theatrical genius transforms into a blockbuster of a musical, worth seeing for the exceptional efforts of the youthful, energetic cast, regardless of who plays Teen Angel.
Eric Schneider and Emily Padgett star as bad-boy Danny Zuko and good-girl Sandy Dumbrowski, the ducktailed, leather-jacketed Romeo and the ponytailed, poodle-skirted Juliet of Rydell High, circa 1959. Their duets on “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want” are lovely, and Padgett’s poignant solo version of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is a tearjerker.
Inexplicably dumped by Danny when she gets too close, and derided as Sandra Dee and Gidget by the envious Pink Ladies women’s auxiliary of Danny’s T-Birds gang, Sandy eventually proves her mettle to T-Birds and Pink Ladies alike. It is fun to watch Emily Padgett’s Sandy wrestle with teenage angst and Danny’s fickleness as she adjusts to life at Rydell High.
But Eric Schneider’s characterization of Danny lacks the charisma that the character demands, and there’s not enough chemistry between Schneider and Padgett to make Sandy’s abiding love for Danny believable.
Allie Schulz is much more convincing as Betty Rizzo, tough as a nickel steak on the outside, but sometimes squishy-soft on the inside. David Ruffin is also good as her on-again, off-again boyfriend Kenickie. With her hair color changing radically from scene to scene — to a whole rainbow of colors not found in nature — Kate Chadwick is cute as Frenchy, the high-school dropout who drops out of beauty school as well.
Kelly Felthous really revs up her sex-kitten purr as Marty the group’s blonde bombshell, and Bridie Carroll is amusing as Jan the compulsive overeater. William Blum is funny as Roger, a.k.a. Rump, the king of the mooners; Brian Crum is sweet as the boyish Doody, named after Buffalo Bob’s puppet pal; and Mike Russo (subbing for Nick Verina) is a caution as would-be ladies’ man Sonny LaTierri, who’s too rude, crude, and very unattractive to ever be the chick magnet that he hopes to become.
Scot P. Allan is a hoot as Eugene, the king of the nerds; Elizabeth Stacey (subbing for Erin Henry) is a brown-noser’s brown-noser as prissy cheerleader Patty Simcox; and Roxie Lucas adds a crusty cameo as the no-nonsense teacher Miss Lynch.
But the audience saved its biggest round of applause for Dominic V. Fortuna, who warms up the crowd before the opening curtain and, early in Act II, somehow makes slimy, egotistical, womanizing WAXX DJ Vince Fontaine — the smarmy host of Rydell’s sock hop, when he’s not hitting on high school girls — into a real crowd favorite. His “Born to Hand Jive” dance contest ditty is one of the show’s biggest hits. Indeed, many DPAC patrons who arrived talking about Taylor Hicks no doubt left singing the praises of Dominic Fortuna, who turned a cameo into a star-making performance.
In addition to the exuberant musical staging of director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, Grease features the dynamic musical direction of Kimberly Grigsby and the hot licks of conductor Tom Whiddon (synthesizer), associate conductor Bryan McAdams (piano/synthesizer), Joshua B. Weinstein (guitar), and Greg Germann (drums/percussion). Mega-kudos also go to the splendid high-school, burger-joint, and drive-in-movie sets of scenic designer Derek McLane, the artful illumination of lighting designer Kenneth Posner, the fabulous 1950s fashions of costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, the wonderful wigs and hair designs Paul Huntley, and sure-handed sound design of Brian Ronan.
Whether you have never seen Grease or seen it a thousand times, this magnificent musical, produced by Paul Nicholas and David Ian, Nederlander Presentations Inc., and Terry Allen Kramer, by arrangement with Robert Stigwood, is the one that you want — to see — over and over again.
Grease continues through Oct. 11th at the Durham Performing Arts Center. See our theatre calendar for details.