Has there ever been a long-running musical more superficial than "Grease?"
It reduces one of the most complex decades of American history, the 1950s, to a jumble of faux-nostalgic memories of sock hops and souped-up cars.
You'd look in vain for anti-Communist scares, civil rights, rebellion against conformity or the rise of real rock 'n' roll - the hard-edged kind, born of rhythm 'n' blues and practiced by everyone from Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley. The plot has just one mini-crisis, a suspected pregnancy solved with an "It was a false alarm" reference.
The virtue of "Grease" is that, at its best, it can help audiences forget their troubles. That was true when it premiered in Chicago in 1971, giving relief for two hours from the Vietnam War, a rocky economy and Richard Nixon's divisive leadership. Almost 40 years later, it might provide the same mindless escape from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rocky economy and Barack Obama's divisive presidency.
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It does so intermittently in the national touring version that reached Ovens Auditorium on Tuesday. Ovens would've been 4 years old in 1959, when we find ourselves at Rydell High - named, of course, for singing sensation Bobby Rydell. (The show does have cute in-jokes, many forgotten today. Who under 35 recalls the boy belter from Philadelphia?)
Everything is as we remember, if we conflate the stage and movie versions in our minds. The three most famous tunes - "Grease," "Hopelessly Devoted" and "You're the One That I Want" - come from that 1978 film, but they fit in nicely.
Harmless egomaniac Danny still divides attention between his mock-tough T-Birds and Sandy, a sweet transfer student. Rizzo still runs her rude mouth and the twittering Pink Ladies.
Sin still raises its tiny head in the form of stolen hubcaps or cigarette-filled pajama parties, and the sudden finale reminds us that good girls and mildly naughty rebels can coexist in the same world, sometimes even in the same personality.
The big news now is 2006 "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks, whose photo appears on the "Grease" display at the Performing Arts Center Web site. This is like giving the guy playing Osric top billing in "Hamlet." Hicks has one song and no dialogue, though he ends his enjoyable cameo with soulful harmonica riffs. He's not alone here in his "Idol"-atry, either: Ace Young, a finalist the year Hicks won, will play Danny on Friday and Saturday before taking over the role on tour.
He'll have sizable shoes to fill: Mark Raumaker, the Danny in other shows this week, had plenty of personality and sang with period style Tuesday night. His Sandy, Lauren Ashley Zakrin, oversold "Hopelessly Devoted" but came through when allowed to belt.
Laura D'Andre's blunt, cruel Rizzo stood out, and Dominic Fortuna was brashly funny as disc jockey Vince Fontaine. (He warmed up the crowd beforehand with sing-alongs and Gastonia jokes, which were last fresh in about 1959.)
But they're all trapped in an assaultive, vulgar production that bombards us with rock-show lighting, an overbearing orchestra and endless smutty jokes. I've never seen another musical where the default position for any unoccupied hand was a crotch, and I doubt that the many parents with young kids anticipated all the middle-finger salutes and lewd gags.
Oddly, this cast doesn't contain one person of color. The exaggerated "dese and dose" accents place this musical in the urban North, where every public high school had black students in 1959. But I guess they might not have been willing to dance to such emotionally hollow, imitative songs.