THEATER | Taylor Hicks leaves ’em swooning in “Grease”

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“It’s got groove, it’s got meaning.” The original “word”—Grease—returns to the Orpheum Theatre this week for a generation-bridging production of the beloved and popular musical. In the audience for opening night on Wednesday, I witnessed all the magical rock-‘n’-roll-ridden excitement brought to the big screen in the 1978 motion picture version, with a few added surprises. If you were born to hand jive, have ever owned a poodle skirt, consider grease a hair product, know how to dance the swim, or drooled over John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as “Danny” and “Sandy,” this musical is your ticket to a kitschy, entertaining, and nostalgia-filled night.

The show opens with the fast-talking, charmingly boisterous, Vince Fontaine—the voice of Rydell High’s rock n’ roll radio air waves, WAXX—engaging audience members with light comedy shtick and karaoke-style renditions of ‘50s bubblegum hits. Throughout the show, die-hard fans of Grease the movie will notice that the musical deviates a bit from its screen counterpart, but the pivotal things—choreography that doesn’t miss a beat, raunchy innuendos, an animated and energetic cast and favorite numbers—remain constants. From “Greased Lightnin'” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to “Summer Nights” and the comradely, “We Go Together,” the production is loaded with the catchy Jacobs/Casey songs made famous by the original stage production and which became immediate chart-topper hits after the jump to Hollywood fame. Don’t be embarrassed if you find yourself instinctively and unconsciously singing along; mostly likely the person in the aisle next to you will be also.

grease, playing through november 22 at the orpheum theatre. for tickets ($28-$78) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org.

Flirting with social issues like teenage pregnancy, gangs, and rebellion, the show tackles the drama with humor and a little vulgarity, with a cast eager to rise to the occasion—for the most part, that is. The few meek cast performances that muddle the production are thankfully outnumbered by stand-outs from some less common characters, including a hysterical, scene-stealing performance from the Pink Ladies’ aspiring cosmetologist, Frenchy, played by Kate Morgan Chadwick. Her exaggerated shrill delivery mixed with screwball humor was a surprisingly refreshing and memorable portrayal of a classic character. Another hilarious performance and guilty pleasure is in a duet scene between Jan and Roger—the chubbier goofballs of the Pink Lady/T-Bird crew—in which Roger (aka “Rump”) shares his secret pants-dropping, exhibitionist pastime: “Mooning.” And I couldn’t mask my excitement during the shining moment: the unforgettable “You’re the One That I Want” reveal scene where a pompadoured and freshly sexed-up Sandy (Lauren Ashley Zakrin) steals the heart—and libido—of T-Bird leader, Danny Zuko (Eric Schneider).

Of course, we can’t forget one of the biggest reasons for a packed opening night theater crowd: a performance from the platinum-selling recording artist and American Idol winner, silver-haired country boy Taylor Hicks. Appearing as “Teen Angel,” Frenchy’s dreamy advice-shelling song bird, Hicks makes his theatrical entrance by bursting out of a giant 15-cent ice cream cone. Commanding the stage as his bluesy adaption of “Beauty School Drop-Out” encourages the puzzled pink haired Pink Lady to “turn in her teasin’ comb” and go back to high school. Even in the darkened aisles of the Orpheum, I could see audience members—especially women in their 40s and 50s—light up with sheer glee to see the Bruce Springsteen vocal ringer and “Idol” star live and shaking his stuff in a glitter adorned, Vegas-style angel suit. And when Hicks pulled out a harmonica from deep within the tight pockets of his shimmery slacks to give the number that signature Hicks quality, I was sure someone in the crowd was going to have a heart attack. Whether or not Simon Cowell would approve of his performance is a moot point. This night it was all about the audience’s opinion, and they loved it.

Towards the show’s finale, I was left a little confused when a standing ovation turned into a heavy-winded reprise of almost all the popular numbers, but nothing could quite prepare me for the actual “curtain call” when Hicks returned to the stage, guitar in tow, for a mini-concert promoting his new single. Marketing at its most convincing, ladies and gents. If you’re a Hicks fan, sit down and enjoy the music; if you’re not, I would suggest silently slipping out the door.

No matter when you decide to exit the theater during this production of Grease, I can guarantee “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom” will be stuck in your head endlessly, or at least for the duration of the evening.