"Grease: It’s Still the Word" proclaims the advertising for a touring company of the show making a stop in San Francisco in its second year on the road. What explanation can there be for the enormous and continuing success of this 1950’s nostalgia piece, which ran for eight years in its original 1972 production on Broadway, spawned a TV series, Happy Days, and was made into the top-grossing musical film ever made? As the 1978 movie, which starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, brought in over 100 million dollars at the box office, and the live version has been popping up in productions all over the world for over 30 years, the answer probably has to do with cold, hard cash. As for the audience appeal, the show itself, a flimsy excuse for a plot surrounding a bunch of catchy doo-wop-style tunes, is perky, sexual in a 50’s kind of way, and perfectly brainless. It’s a big cartoon.
With the images of John and Olivia burned into many brains, the leads in a live Grease have a lot of work to do to win audiences over. The pair in the touring production, Derek Keeling and Tiana Checchia, were a rather pallid imitation, she, in particular, with a nasally singing voice and low sex appeal. The show attempted to pump-up the entertainment value with other gimmicks: a pre-show dance contest with audience participation, and the rather embarrassing inclusion of still-kicking 50’s heartthrob Frankie Avalon in a star turn as the "Teen Angel." Avalon, who travels with his own conductor, and leads a post-show sing-along on opening night, trots out gamely to sing his one song, "Beauty School Dropout," getting probably the biggest applause of the night.
Tough-gal, Rizzo, played by Lauren Tartaglia, created a moment of genuine emotion in her big song, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," which effectively convinces drippy Sandy to drop her good-girl guise and go after her man a little wildly. Other than that, the evening had about as much excellence as a B-movie at a drive-in. Better to be petting in the back row.