I don’t know why Broadway has become a dumping ground for American Idol contenders. The show (which I love, by the way) is supposed to be a search for the next great American pop star. A Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears—not a Bernadette Peters. So whenever I see that Clay Aiken is starring in Spamalot, or Fantasia is in The Color Purple, or half the cast of Rent is made up of AI rejects, I can’t help but feel bad that Broadway has had to turn to these pop-culture footnotes in order to sell tickets. Last night, American Idol season-five winner Taylor Hicks was absent from his usual role as Teen Angel in the touring production of Grease (it seems he had previous New Year’s plans and will only grace the Orpheum for the Jan. 2-4 performances).
He wasn’t missed.
Teen Angel has one song—about five minutes in the spotlight, then he disappears into the greenroom. And after seeing handsome, blond understudy Preston Ellis woo Kate Chadwick Morgan’s Frenchy during “Beauty School Dropout,” it is hard to even imagine the silver-haired Hicks—known for his soul music—as a seductive crooner. It’s harder to imagine the winner of America’s largest talent contest would go on the road to play this role. Broadway is one thing, but the touring show? At least he is finding work, which is more than some AI alums can say.
If the producers were hoping to bring in audiences with the Hicks hook, they didn’t need it. The nearly full Orpheum was onboard from the moment Vince Fontaine (Dominic Fortuna) took the stage to warm up the crowd with a sing- and dance-along to the final bows, which were followed by a Grease medley. I’ve never been a fan of the movie, but I couldn’t help smiling at the young, energetic cast having fun with their roles. It was like each one knew they were being compared to John Travolta, Olivia Newton John, and Stockard Channing, but they were up for the challenge. Eric Schneider as Danny, Emily Padgett as Sandy, Allie Schulz as Rizzo, and David Ruffin’s Kenickie—these are all kids who worked hard for their place on stage. They didn’t win a televised popularity contest; they went to Interlochen and The American Musical and Dramatic Academy and Northwestern University to fine-tune their craft. And while Grease is by no measure an example of fine American theater, the cast made it work—and had fun doing it.
So see Grease if you love the movie, or if you love the music, or if you want to support some up-and-coming musical theater actors. Or, OK, to say that you saw Taylor Hicks live.
Grease continues at the Orpheum through Nov. 4, hennepintheatredistrict.org