Welcome to Shea's Performing Arts Center, where the mind-crushing effects of reality television have taken center stage.
The current tour of "Grease," which features "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks in the role of Teen Angel and reality show star Lauren Ashley Zarkin as Sandra, began its six-day run at the theater Tuesday night.
The production, which features several gifted singers and dancers in key roles, puts the ragtag characters of Rydell High on their best behavior, purees them into mush, and produces a thoroughly sanitized and emotionally vapid piece of theater.
"Grease" was clearly never meant to be the height of musical theater book or songwriting, but it did once contain a rough-and-tumble character that imbued it with an endearing brand of nostalgia.
Sure, the show may have been out-and-out pastiche, snipped out from segments of '50s culture and decoupaged into sing-along entertainment, but "Grease" once boasted believable conflict, dynamic characters and something resembling a soul. That made the hackneyed story line and tenuous connections between the songs and book points of forgivable charm rather than outright distraction.
But with each successive revival, committees of producers and investors have buffed the show to a smooth sheen that obscures the genuine personality and emotional wallop it originally packed. In this "High School Musical" mentality, the themes and issues that should animate the story are obliterated by a tsunami of production values and performances concerned with slickness over credibility.
All this was true even before the current production of "Grease" got under way in 2008. So imagine the effect that the blandifying machine of reality television, through which the show's original leads were cast, has had on the franchise. The results certainly are slick, but they aren't pretty.
This particular tour, sad to say, represents the latest and worst example of the trend toward terminal blandness that has plagued the show even from its inception. With a couple of shockingly bad exceptions, the tour's cast does its level best to mitigate the stultifying effect of Kathleen Marshall's patchwork choreography and consistently inelegant staging, but their efforts are too little to shine through the coats of theatrical whitewash its producers have slapped upon it.
As Danny Zuko, Josh Franklin is somewhat more along the lines of Dustin Diamond than John Travolta, but he is an endearing actor and talented singer nonetheless. But Zarkin's Sandra, vocally gifted though she is, embodies exactly the sort of committee-approved personality that boils down to a bowl of oatmeal. Laura D'Andre's Rizzo, glammed up to the point where her rough-edged character is barely recognizable, eats most of the her good lines in "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," but is in fantastic voice on "There Are Worse Things I Could Do."
Hicks, the gray-haired Southerner who descends from heaven encased in an ice cream cone to deliver an awkwardly swaggering and largely unintelligible performance of what ought to be the show-stopping "Beauty School Dropout," shows that the Broadway touring circuit is where "American Idol" careers go to die.
Time was that "Grease" was, perhaps hopelessly but at least genuinely, devoted to telling a story. But at this point, it's pretty much just hopeless.
"Grease"2 stars (out of 4)
Musical presented through March 28 in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
For information: 847-1410, www.sheas.org.